U.S. Senate committee rips drug makers for predatory price-gouging

Senators-on-aging-committee-300x172Congress must stop Big Pharma predators from ripping off American consumers by acting like hedge funds, buying up decades-old, off-patent drugs and jacking up prices on long-standing “gold standard” prescription medications, a Senate committee has recommended after a bipartisan industry investigation.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging, chaired by Maine Republican Susan M. Collins and with ranking member Claire McCaskill, the Democrat from Missouri, (both seen in photo above) ended 2016 by issuing its scathing critique of companies like Valeant, Turing Pharmaceuticals, Retrophin, and Rodelis Therapeutics. Those companies and their ilk buy out other firms to control drugs long on the market to treat conditions like: parasites that afflict HIV-AIDS patients, kidney stones in those with a rare disease, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and heart and other medications for those with an uncommon inherited ailment. As soon as they seize control from others, who often had borne the big costs to research and develop drugs for which patents had expired, Valeant, Turing, Retophin, and Rodelis sent the medications’ cost through the roof.

After examining their practices for a year and hearing from their sometimes smirking and resistant executives (notably the smug “pharma bro,” aka Turing’s Martin Shkreli), senators described their skyrocketing product pricing with words like: egregious, predatory, and immoral. As USA Today bluntly described the senators’ findings with its story headline: “Senate report shows Martin Shkreli is just as bad as you think he is.”

The committee on aging said Congress should enact legislation to speed to market lower-cost generic alternatives to off-patent prescription medications, including by providing expedited review to such alternative drugs where there aren’t competitors to pricey brands. Lawmakers should bar Big Pharma from exploiting existing laws to keep generic makers from getting samples to prove their medications work as well existing products—large drug companies have claimed this creates safety issues and has refused to cooperate. Senators also raised concerns about Big Pharma’s so-called consumer assistance programs. These efforts, including the issue of discount vouchers, actually steer patients to expensive products, increase companies’ business, and undercut valid complaints about unfair pricing, committee members said.

The committee also said regulators should consider select situations in which patients, doctors, and hospitals could import off-patent prescription medications when their prices soar and they become less available. Although millions of cost-conscious Americans at some risk buy their prescriptions abroad or through international online pharmacies, Congress long has resisted allowing broad importation of prescription medications. The drugs often are made to high U.S. standards but are sold abroad at much lower prices—partly because governments of other nations negotiate pricing with drug makers and won’t allow the excruciating charges that Americans bear because Big Pharma says it must recoup its R&D costs for drugs. The committee on aging said any imported drugs should come from nations with proven safety and quality measures.

These recommendations all sound to me like a good start, though I’ll continue to insist that Congress keep Big Pharma and its regulators, especially the federal Food and Drug Administration, in the glare of adverse public opinion over issues including quality, safety, affordability, and access. Drug prices aren’t just soaring for products like the much publicized off-patent meds, including the EpiPen. As I’ve written, cancer drugs, especially those tied to innovative immunotherapies, are carrying jaw-dropping prices, some hitting more than $250,000 a year. An anti-viral that attacks Hepatitis C so effectively that it is described as a virtual cure for patients is creating huge pain for states that try to pay for the tens of thousands of dollar a year treatments for the many poorer citizens who can’t afford but could benefit from it.

But there are now so many hands in the Big Pharma money pot, with each adding costs at every step of the way, that individual patient-consumers, much less powerful hospitals, are reeling to keep up with soaring drug prices. It also is distressing to know that, even with generic drugs, the long-promised lower-cost option, there is a widening scandal about price fixing. Although I’ve written that there are steps individuals can take to be smarter about prescription drugs and their costs, there’s no escaping that a huge driver of the overall rise in health care expense in this country can be attributed to soaring drug costs. We’re all mad as heck about this. Let’s see whether 2017, no matter the political party in power, turns that anger into productive actions that benefit our health.

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