January 10, 2019 / 11:03 AM / 10 months ago

Sen. Sanders, Rep. Cummings to introduce bill to lower U.S. drug prices

WASHINGTON, Jan 10 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Elijah Cummings plan to introduce legislation on Thursday aimed at lowering the cost of prescription drugs for U.S. consumers.

Democrats have been critical of efforts by the Trump administration to bring down drug prices after President Donald Trump promised to do so during his campaign and since being elected. They have said proposals by the administration let big drugmakers off the hook and did not do enough to help Americans.

The proposed legislation, which has several co-sponsors among Democrats in the House of Representatives that they now control, and in the Republican-led Senate, is comprised of three bills that aim to curb drug costs.

“The United States pays by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” Sanders said in a statement.

“If the pharmaceutical industry will not end its greed, which is literally killing Americans, then we will end it for them,” said Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year rolled out a plan to lower drug prices and has introduced several modest proposals to curb medicine costs, but Trump has expressed frustration over continued price hikes by drugmakers.

Several pharmaceutical companies temporarily froze prices on select drugs last year. But drugmakers raised prices on more than 250 prescription drugs, including the world’s top-selling medicine, AbbVie’s Humira, to begin 2019.

In response to increased pressure, however, most drugmakers ended their practice of annual double-digit percentage increases of list prices, keeping most under 10 percent.

The Sanders and Cummings bill would peg U.S. prescription drug prices to the median price from five countries - Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan - where drug costs are typically far lower because of government price controls.

That is similar to a proposal the Trump administration said it plans to put forth in the coming months that would create an “international pricing index” to help the cost of prescription drugs to Medicare more closely align with other countries. The government health insurance program covers more than 40 million older and disabled Americans.

The bill would also allow the U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services (HHS) to negotiate prices in Medicare Part D, a program that helps Medicare beneficiaries pay for self-administered medicines like those purchased at drugstores.

The proposal would also end a ban that keeps Americans from buying medicines at lower prices from Canada and other countries.

Drugmakers have long argued that price controls in the United States would stifle innovation and that importing drugs from other countries is unsafe.

They also say that rebates and discounts they must pay to insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) to ensure patient access to their products - and that are not passed on to consumers - forces them to keep list prices high. Trump administration proposals have singled out so-called middlemen like PBMs as a big part of the problem.

HHS Services Secretary Alex Azar has been defending the administration’s efforts to lower drug prices.

“(Trump) and I will not stop our work until list prices go down,” Azar wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. (Reporting By Yasmeen Abutaleb Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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