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Michael Hiltzik: Those drug prices Big Pharma cut to appease Trump? Drugmakers are raising them again

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

It's hard to believe that anyone was taken in this summer when a handful of drug companies announced rollbacks of price increases or price freezes on some of their drugs, ostensibly in response to jawboning by President Trump.

The Washington Post declared that Pfizer's July 10 announcement that it would hold off on already scheduled price hikes was "a successful use of the bully pulpit for Trump and a relatively rapid concession by one of the country's largest companies."

Trump himself bought into the narrative, and why not, since it made him look like a hero. "Great news for the American people!" he tweeted after Pfizer's announcement.

You can probably tell what's coming. Pfizer is moving ahead with price increases, as is Merck, one of the other drugmakers that staged a theatrical price rollback. In both cases, they're exploiting loopholes that were really no secret.

Drug industry critics pointed this out at the time. "Pfizer's alleged concession to Trump is a sham," said Peter Maybarduk, director of the Access to Medicines Program at the advocacy group Public Citizen. "Pfizer is only deferring price increases -- not canceling them, and certainly not lowering its prices."

Others observe that comprehensive reform of the nation's pharmaceutical pricing system is needed, not piecemeal responses to presidential arm-twisting. "Making promises to the president is not how you fix a fundamental market problem," Walid Gellad, an expert on pharmaceutical policy at the University of Pittsburgh, told me this week.

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Let's examine the loopholes, and how the companies have exploited them.

Pfizer never said it would cut drug prices for Trump. Instead, the company said it would "defer" price increases on 41 drug formulations it had scheduled for July 1 until either Trump's "blueprint to lower drug prices" went into effect or the end of the year, whichever came sooner.

The "blueprint" mentioned by Pfizer was a roster of modest administrative nudges Trump announced May 11, which industry experts generally found too limited to produce significant lowering of prices. Because the blueprint hasn't gone into effect, Jan. 1 is the operative deadline. (Pfizer's actual implementation date for the increases is Jan. 15.)

Pfizer's Nov. 16 announcement of the restored price increases makes note of the fact prices on 90 percent of its medicines "will remain unchanged," which is a bit like observing after a plane crash that most planes land safely.

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