The issue of rising drug costs continues to be a hot political button Democrats seem eager to keep pushing.
Congressional Democrats Wednesday announced the formation of a task force to investigate the rising cost of prescription drugs. Spending on prescription drugs grew 11.6% in 2014, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, ending a three-year decline.
The effort is being led by Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who along with presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has been leading the cause this past year. Each introduced bills in September aimed at lowering drug costs.
Cummings along with 18 Democratic committee members sent a letter to Republican Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah (PDF), requesting he schedule a vote on Nov. 17 on subpoenas to compel Valeant Pharmaceuticals CEO J. Michael Pearson and Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli to provide documents regarding increases in the prices of their drugs.
The letter marks the second such request made by committee Democrats to Chaffetz since Sept. 28. Both Pearson and Shkreli have faced public scrutiny over their companies' decisions to set exorbitant price increases on inexpensive, obscure generic drugs that lost their patents years ago, but were being produced by only a few or in some cases just one manufacturer.
In their latest request, Democrats accuse Chaffetz of remaining quiet on the issue and refusing to take up the matter despite repeated requests to look into the causes that have allowed medications like Daraprim, a drug acquired by Turing in August, to immediately go from being sold at $13.50 a pill to $750.
“Your silence on this issue is troubling for several reasons,” the letter stated. “It creates the appearance that you do not take seriously a request from nearly half of the Members of this Committee. It also contradicts the Committee's oversight plan, which was adopted unanimously earlier this year. But worst of all, it suggests that you believe this issue is not worth the Committee's time.”
Public backlash over Turing and Valeant has helped make rising drug costs a key political issue this campaign cycle. Democratic candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sanders have both used Shkreli as an example of corporate greed on the part of some drug companies.
The same sentiment was shared by Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, who recently spoke out against the “pure profiteering” of some drug firms.
That spotlight has prompted other lawmakers and officials to weigh in.
On Wednesday HHS announced plans to hold a public forum Nov. 20 that will include representatives from the pharmaceutical industry, consumer advocates, health providers, employers and insurers to discuss how to address the rising cost of drugs and its impact.
Also on Wednesday leading members of the Senate's Special Committee on Aging announced their intention to hold hearings tentatively scheduled to begin Dec. 9 to investigate pharmaceutical prices.
“The sudden, aggressive price hikes for a variety of drugs used widely for decades affect patients and healthcare providers and the overall cost of healthcare,” said committee Chairman Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in a statement. “These substantial increases have the potential to inflate the cost of healthcare for Americans, especially our seniors, by hundreds of millions of dollars each year.”
Efforts to take some form of action on rising drug costs were included in the recent two-year budget deal passed by Congress with a provision that would require generic-drug makers to pay rebates to state Medicaid programs when the cost of their products increase faster than the rate of inflation.
Some, however, feel such a plan would be ineffective toward controlling drug prices and could have the potential of limiting patients' access to generic drugs.
“I think that there's a possibility that the industry may respond in a negative way,” said James Giordano, a partner and national director for value-based care and population health management at global consulting firm Kurt Salmon. “This proposal may make it more difficult to bring generics to market, and that would leave some patients left with option of having to pay for high cost, branded drugs.”