WASHINGTON — A top Trump administration official explained a proposed prescription drug price policy during a congressional hearing Tuesday that drew a caution from Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
“There is a complete lack of transparency in this industry, and it’s not just in drugs, it’s everything in health care,” Bennet said.
Until consumers can know the reasons for drug prices, “We’re going to have a hard time making progress,” he said.
He was speaking to Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, during a hearing to determine what Congress could do to help bring down prescription drug prices.
Lawmakers in Washington Tuesday and the Colorado General Assembly throughout the 2018 session made similar remarks as they blamed pharmaceutical companies for raising prices beyond the ability to pay of many Americans.
Among the half-dozen bills introduced in the legislature in the last session to hold down drug costs, only one of them passed. It limits co-payments and broadens the right of pharmacists to tell patients about more affordable options for their prescriptions.
Like the state legislature, Republicans on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee wanted to avoid excessive government intervention that could interfere with efficiencies of the marketplace. Democrats sought assurances the companies were acting in the best interests of patients.
Bennet, a Democrat, is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The hearing focused primarily on the American Patients First plan President Donald Trump announced last month. It included what he called a “blueprint” for lowering drug prices.
Bennet’s sentiment about a lack of transparency was one of the few concerns shared by Republicans and Democrats during the Senate hearing.
“There is no issue I hear more about in my town hall meetings than drug prices,” Bennet said. “It is a mystery to everybody in America why the government can’t negotiate these prices.”
Azar told him the greater risk was a government intervention resulting in “one size fits all” drug prescriptions, regardless of the unique needs of patients.
Prices required by government order could give patients “no choice, no opt-out, no options for seniors” when doctors prescribe drugs, Azar said.
Instead, he suggested allowing private sector companies to set prices as long as they follow fair competition guidelines in Trump’s blueprint.
Bennet co-sponsored a bill last October for reducing some drug and health care prices called the Medicare-X Choice Act. It would allow consumers in areas underserved by affordable health insurance to use Medicare’s network of doctors and require similar reimbursement rates.
Medicare is a federal insurance program that guarantees health care for persons at least 65 years old. Nearly a third of the nation’s prescription drugs are funded by Medicare.
Bennet’s bill also would authorize the government to hire outside companies to process Medicare claims, manage call centers and handle patients’ billing appeals.
“In rural communities, limited competition is leaving many Coloradans with fewer choices, and, in some cases, only one high-cost option,” Bennet said in a statement in October. “Medicare-X is a plan that begins to fix this problem by giving families and individuals a meaningful and affordable alternative.”
The Medicare-X Choice Act has not won congressional approval.
Other Democratic senators at the hearing Tuesday were more harsh with Azar.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said, “On May 30, the president said that in reaction to the release of the drug-pricing blueprint, drug companies would be ‘announcing voluntary massive drops in prices within two weeks.'”
Instead, “It’s been two weeks and there have been no decreases and an indication of increase,” Warren said.
Azar said some pharmaceutical companies were considering “substantial and material decreases of drug prices.” He also said he still was working on getting drug prices lowered for Medicare patients.