In October, President Trump once again promised to reduce drug prices for American consumers — a pledge he’s repeatedly made since campaigning for office.
He said drug companies are “frankly getting away with murder” and that his administration is “going to get prescription drug prices way down.”
Happily, the National Academy of Sciences, which was established by an act of Congress in 1863, has provided Trump with a realistic road map to accomplish that goal. It issued a 200-page report the other day titled “Making Medicines Affordable: A National Imperative.”
Among other steps, it recommends the federal government use its clout as the country’s largest purchaser of prescription meds to negotiate lower prices with drug makers. It also calls for greater transparency regarding how drug prices are set.
I contacted the White House this week to ask when Trump will announce his embrace of these common-sense ideas and fulfill his vow to make medication more accessible and more affordable.
A White House spokeswoman had no answer. She told me to take it up with the Department of Health and Human Services.
I reached out repeatedly to HHS but, as of Thursday, no one got back to me.
Which is to say: Don’t hold your breath.
Drug pricing returned the spotlight this week after CVS announced its plans for a $69-billion takeover of health insurer Aetna — an unprecedented healthcare tie-up between a drug retailer and a provider of coverage.
The two companies said the deal would provide consumers with more affordable care. Experts I spoke with said a more likely scenario is prices going up as healthcare choices become more limited.
Hard as it may be to believe, there’s a yawning chasm between Trump’s words and deeds when it comes to drug prices. He’s been a consistent critic of the drug industry since before taking office.
He declared a year ago: “I’m going to bring down drug prices. I don’t like what’s happened with drug prices.”
In February 2016, Trump even went so far as to promote the notion of the government using its market strength to haggle drug prices lower.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow, let me do some numbers. If we competitively bid drugs in the United States, we can save as much as $300 billion a year,” he told supporters.
That was an ambitious projection even for a guy who fancies himself a master dealmaker. Americans spent $450 billion on prescription meds last year, so Trump was calculating he could muscle drug companies into slashing prices by two-thirds.
To date, he hasn’t announced a single initiative along these lines. But he has nominated a former drug-company executive, Alex Azar, to serve as health secretary.
While head of U.S. operations for Eli Lilly & Co., Azar more than doubled the price of insulin, a life-saving medication for millions of people with diabetes (including me).
If approved for the HHS gig, he’d replace Tom Price, who quit in September amid a scandal over his taxpayer-funded use of private jets.
Dana Korsen, a spokeswoman for the National Academy of Sciences, told me a representative of the organization will testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions at a Tuesday hearing on drug prices.
That’s a good thing — not that anyone should expect the Republican-controlled Congress to take any action.
Fun fact: The pharmaceutical industry already has contributed nearly $13 million to politicians for next year’s congressional election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The top recipient to date: Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who has pocketed almost $313,000. Hatch sits on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
I asked Korsen if anyone at the White House has expressed even passing interest in the academy’s recommendations. “Not that I’m aware of,” she replied.
Here, let me help.
The academy says Medicare, which covers 44 million people, should be permitted to negotiate prices with drug makers. For years, Republican lawmakers have blocked such a move, assuming, correctly, that this would result in drug companies making less money.
U.S. patients pay as much as 16 times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs, studies have found.
The academy says drug makers should be required to explain the pricing of their drugs, and that the Federal Trade Commission should use these reports “to identify and act upon any anti-competitive practices.”
It says there should be less direct marketing of prescription meds to consumers, which wastes money that otherwise could go into development of new drugs and “can adversely influence consumer choices.”
The academy also says Medicare patients shouldn’t be wiped out financially in the event of a catastrophic illness. In such cases, there should be “limits on the total annual out-of-pocket costs paid by enrollees.”
Healthcare advocates praised the report’s recommendations as prudent measures.
The drug industry, not so much.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America dismissed the academy’s proposals as “misguided” and “a rehash of outdated ideas.”
“Instead,” it said, “we should focus on lowering costs for patients through market-based reforms that promote competition, modernize the drug discovery and development process, improve insurance affordability and move toward a system that focuses on what is valuable to patients and which pays for results.”
Which is to say: Don’t hold your breath.