HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell told lawmakers Wednesday that the administration is "pursuing every administrative option" for addressing high prescription drug prices, starting with a few provisions in President Barack Obama's fiscal 2017 budget.
Sen. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said he supports the budget's call for allowing the HHS secretary to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on prices for biologics and particularly expensive drugs.
"Drug costs are scaring the daylights out of me," McDermott said.
Burwell replied that prescription drug prices are a growing part of the Medicare budget, and the Veterans Administration has succeeded in lowering costs through negotiations. The budget also would allow states to collectively bargain on Medicaid drug prices with some companies, and would expedite closure of the Medicare Part D coverage gap known as the "doughnut hole."
The White House's $4.15 trillion budget request, released Tuesday, includes $1.1 billion to fight opioid abuse, $1.8 billion to research the Zika virus and financial support for the cancer research “moonshot” initiative led by Vice President Joe Biden.
The budget request also proposes a change to narrow the Cadillac tax on high-end insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. Opponents of the tax, including some who support the ACA overall, have said the adjustment isn't enough and the tax should be repealed.
Members of the House Ways and Means Committee questioned Burwell on Wednesday about the HHS portion of the budget and a variety of other health policy topics.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas, a Republican, said Obama's budget duplicates existing programs and perpetuates flaws in the ACA that have led to higher premiums and costs.
“These are serious problems that need real solutions,” Brady said. “But these solutions are nowhere to be found in this irresponsible and expensive budget.”
Burwell also spoke about the budget's efforts to combat opioid abuse, which includes better access to medication-assisted treatment, and increased availability of the drug naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose. She said upcoming guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should also help doctors avoid overprescribing.