This morning the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held the first of three hearings on high drug prices. A great many Democratic Senators attended, and the hearing focused on outrageous drug costs and patient complaints. This is further evidence that members of Congress are determined to take action to reduce drug prices, and it is critical for consumer groups to be involved and help pass major reforms.
This hearing focused on basic facts about the drug distribution system, whether drug price increases are a major problem, and where the money goes. The second hearing will focus on the process, and the third hearing will examine a report titled "Ensuring Patient Access to Affordable Pharmaceutical Drugs" and its policy recommendations.
Chairman Lamar Alexander opened with a statement that the United States spends $450 billion on prescription drugs every year. He is proud that in the past the HELP Committee has enacted laws to reduce costs, and stressed that the focus of this hearing was on drug costs after they are approved. Where happens to the cost of drugs, and where does the money go?
Ranking Member Patty Murray said she was glad the hearing was happening. Astronomically high drug prices are a huge burden for families, and in most cases they are set by drug manufacturers without any meaningful regulation. She noted that Democrats have introduced many bills to bring down drug prices and that she hopes they will garner widespread support.
The four witnesses provided helpful information about the problem. Drug manufacturers contribute greatly to skyrocketing drug prices, but so do pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). The United States is the world leader in drug innovation and research, but many individuals do not have access to life saving medicine because prices are too high. The groups most impacted are people with chronic conditions, people with genetic diseases, those taking off-patent drugs, and people who get healthcare through public programs.
Multiple Senators stressed that high prices are harming patients. Senator Al Franken talked about a constituent named Carol with MS who was denied coverage for her drugs and is being forced to choose between medicine and staying in her home. Such stories are not unique to Minnesota; Patients for Affordable Drugs has collected many of them from all across America.
Pressure is building for action to reduce drug prices and hold drug companies and PBMs accountable. The task for consumer groups is ensure the results are as thorough and helpful for consumers as possible.