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Big Pharma Executives Testify Before Congress (Again)

By: Brady Bizarro, Esq.

On February 26th, and again in early April, top executives from major pharmaceutical companies and PBMs testified before the Senate Finance Committee. The companies represented included Pfizer, Merck, John and Johnson, CVS, Express Scrips, OptumRx, and others. Led by Chairman Grassley (R-IA) and Ranking Member Wyden (D-OR), the Committee sought to address the problems of continued price increases, free loading, and price transparency. They also portrayed PBMs portrayed as the shadowy middlemen who may be making these problems worse through their increased use of rebates.

The hearings proceeded mostly as Q&A sessions. When asked whether the CEOs consider negative public opinion when setting list prices, all said yes, meaning price isn’t just a function of administrative or research and development costs. Their answer Implies that if no one got upset, prices would go up more. One senator pointed out that if Humira (a drug used to treat arthritis and Crohn’s disease) were its own company, the drug would be among the Fortune 500 companies all by itself, larger than General Mills, Halliburton or Xerox.

The drug manufacturers claimed to support the Trump administration’s proposed rebate reform rule. That rule as proposed applies to Medicare Part D rebates only (which are still very large). Senators are also developing bills aimed at reforming the rebate system. Two CEOs told the Committee that they would lower their list prices if the rebate ban was extended to the private market.

Between these two hearings (for the manufacturers and then for the PBMs), the drugmakers and PBMs essentially blamed each other for high prescription drug prices. Popular ideas discussed were potentially tying U.S. drug prices to international prices. There was also serious support for value-based purchasing arrangements (sometimes called risk-sharing agreements) that tie drug payments to patient outcomes. That would mean that if a particular drug fails to produced a particular clinical or financial outcome, a price reduction would be triggered or a refund. Senators noted that these arrangements are complicated because of anti-kickback laws and proposed rebate reform rules, though. In the end, all parties agreed that the status quo isn’t working for patients, payers, or society.