Michael Hiltzik: Biden says he wants to bring down drug prices. His actions tell a different story

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

You might get the impression from the Biden administration's insulin price cut and its initiative allowing Medicare to negotiate over other pharmaceuticals that the drug pricing issue is finally being taken seriously in Washington.

Sadly, no.

The evidence that nothing much has changed arrived just this week, with a notice from the Department of Health and Human Services rejecting a petition for a price cut on Xtandi, a wonder drug for prostate cancer that was developed with public funding at UCLA.

The drug is marketed in the U.S. by Pfizer and the Japanese drug company Astellas for $189,800 a year. In Canada, a year's supply costs $32,558, and in Japan it costs $31,594. Neither country contributed a dime to Xtandi's development. In no other developed country does it cost more than $57,000.

The action by HHS is its attempt to close the book on a four-year effort by prostate cancer patients and others to force the agency to utilize its rights under federal law to ensure patient access to government-funded drugs "on reasonable terms."

"It's not just disappointing," says Robert Sachs, 74, a retired telecommunications executive who filed the original petition in November 2021 and waited while government officials assured him and his fellow petitioners that their request would be "carefully considered."


"After almost a year and a half, for them to send us a two-page letter that could have been written a week after we filed our petition and just contained boilerplate is hard to understand," Sachs says. He and his fellow petitioners are appealing the rejection.

The agency's rejection is at odds with Biden's stated goal of bringing down prescription drug prices across the board, which he expressed in a July 2021 executive order. In that order, Biden observed that high U.S. drug prices are partially "the result of lack of competition among drug manufacturers." The law allows the government to provide that competition to bring prices down, but HHS won't budge.

HHS' rejection also comes at a time when Moderna and Pfizer, the developers of the most widely-used COVID vaccines, are coming under fire for planning to jack up the prices of the vaccines fivefold, to $130 per shot. That decision landed Moderna Chief Executive Stéphane Bancel in the hot seat for nearly two hours during a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.

Bancel explained that Moderna's price is based on "the value of a product to the healthcare system.... How much money can be saved" from its usage.


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