U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar recently stopped by Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis to highlight her push to rein in the high cost of prescription drugs. Legislation championed by her would allow consumers to import cheaper medications from Canada, help generic versions of brand-name drugs get to market faster and allow the federal government to wield its mighty purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare seniors.
All are reasonable and necessary measures. But for those concerned by the high cost of drugs, the Democratic senator’s prescriptions sounded depressingly familiar. Klobuchar, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, Democratic Sen. Al Franken and other congressional stalwarts have backed a variety of drug cost reforms for years, yet these common- sense solutions remain mired in Congress. Klobuchar in particular has waged a dogged fight to ban shady “pay to delay” deals in which the makers of brand-name drugs pay generic manufacturers to hold off selling less-expensive versions of the same medication.
Unfortunately, these congressional consumer advocates are battling hurricane-force political headwinds, courtesy of the wealthy pharmaceutical industry and its legions of lobbyists. Drugmakers understandably like the profitable status quo in which American taxpayers fund much of the basic research for drug development — particularly cancer treatments — through research grants, yet also pay some of the highest prices in the world for medications once they come on the market. Even with the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansion and Medicare Part D for seniors, copays and deductibles can still leave many consumers scrambling to pay or going without.
The national uproar over Martin Shkreli, a pharmaceutical CEO who jacked up the price of a medication by 5,000 percent, pushed policymakers to put aside their Obamacare ideological fight and focus on prescription drug costs. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has subpoenaed Shkreli to appear on Tuesday, though he has asked to be excused. His imminent browbeating at the hands of committee members is richly deserved. But congressional efforts must continue beyond political theater.
It’s worth noting that 100 of the nation’s leading cancer doctors support the three initiatives pushed by Klobuchar. In August, they authored an alarming article in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings medical journal. The doctors noted that the “average price of new cancer drugs increased 5- to 10-fold over 15 years, to more than $100,000 per year in 2012.” Their solutions include ending pay-for-delay deals, allowing imports from Canada and permitting Medicare to negotiate drug prices. In a statement this week, the Federal Trade Commission said its chairwoman, Edith Ramirez, also supports pay-for-delay legislation.
Klobuchar and others have waged a long battle to rein in drug prices. She is to be commended not only for embracing respected solutions but also for her readiness to seize the opportunity at hand to go further. “At some point people in Washington have to start listening to their constituents about drug prices and stand up to the drug companies,’’ she said this week. “This simply can’t continue.”