Trump administration, Big Pharma square off over proposal to televise drug prices

WASHINGTON — Vowing to put American patients first, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Monday blasted the pharmaceutical industry for not doing enough to bring down drug prices and announced what he called “historic action”: a proposal requiring drug manufacturers to include the list price of any drug paid for by Medicare or Medicaid in television ads.

“We will not wait for an industry with so many conflicting and perverse incentives to reform itself,” Azar said at the National Academy of Medicine’s annual forum. “Patients deserve to know what a given drug could cost when they’re being told about the benefits and risks it may have. They deserve to know if the drug company has pushed their prices to abusive levels. And they deserve to know this every time they see a drug advertised to them on TV.”

Azar’s comments come on the heels of President Donald Trump signing two pieces of legislation last week aimed at informing consumers about the lowest-cost drug option at the pharmacy. The latest proposal, Azar said, would “give you the right to know your drug’s price when you see it advertised on TV.”

“For too long, drug pricing has been like no other market,” Azar said. “Prices are completely opaque, and the industry actually makes a point of claiming that their list prices are often meaningless.”

Azar shot back that list prices were, indeed, meaningful for consumers — similar to the sticker price on an automobile. “You buy a car every once in a while, but millions of American patients buy expensive drugs every month. And a year’s worth of the most advertised drugs, mind you, can cost more than a car,” he said. “Despite the ample precedent for this common-sense measure, the pharmaceutical industry has resisted it fiercely.”

He hailed initiatives by the Trump administration that have seen some drug prices drop, but he pledged that all options to reduce prices are under consideration.

“Any ideas that could bring down costs while respecting innovation and patient choice are on the table,” he said. “Make no mistake: The American drug pricing market is already changing. But it’s going to have to change a lot more until American patients get the deal they deserve.”

After his speech, Azar received a standing ovation.

Ahead of his remarks, the main pharmaceutical lobbying group touted a new voluntary measure to direct consumers during TV ads to drugmaker websites for pricing information instead of including the specific list price in ads. Steve Ubl, president of PhRMA, said that disclosing list prices of medication in TV ads could be confusing and misleading.

Ubl hailed the initiative: “We believe this is the right thing to do and is an important step toward providing patients with the information they want.”

In his speech, Azar criticized the move as falling far short. “Placing information on a website is not the same as putting it right in an ad,” he said. “We will not rely on voluntary action to accomplish our goals.

“When we change the rules, the market players will reorganize their businesses to fit the new world. And it will be a very different world for American drug pricing.”

The skyrocketing price of drugs in America has become a major focus of the administration and Congress. A congressional report released in the spring found that the prices of the 20 most commonly prescribed brand-name drugs for seniors have risen nearly 10 times more than the annual rate of inflation over the past five years.

Trump has frequently expressed his frustration over rising drug prices, and in May, he laid out his vision for increasing competition, reducing regulations and changing the incentives for all players in the pharmaceutical industry.

At last week’s bill signing, Trump said drug prices are “way out of whack” and “way too high.”