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Echoes of Big Tobacco fight in Big Pharma hearings

Emily Kopp, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Congress has made curtailing high drug prices a priority this year and has hauled in some of Big Pharma's top executives to prove it.

Committee hearings on drug prices -- the House and Senate have held a half dozen this year -- have sought accountability from the industry for drug prices that have forced patients into agonizing decisions about how to budget their lives and caused one-in-four diabetics to ration insulin.

A recent study shows the cost of brand-name medicines has increased sharply in the last decade, driven largely by price increases on existing drugs, not new breakthroughs.

The Senate Finance Committee called in the CEOs of seven of the world's largest drug companies to testify in February. Ranking Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon likened the panel of executives raising their right hands to testify truthfully about a growing public health crisis to the landmark tobacco hearings of the 1990s.

The headline of a New York Times editorial in January read "It's Time for Pharmaceutical Companies to Have Their Tobacco Moment."

"It does look very much guaranteed that something will happen on drug prices. There is too high a critical mass calling for change," said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works.

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But pharmaceutical companies have leveraged the high-profile hearings into an opportunity to muddy the waters.

In their testimony, drugmakers and sympathetic interest groups have pitched policy solutions that seem promising, but would ultimately pad their profits, and possibly drive up prices for patients in the long run.

The risk, advocates say, is losing momentum on weak measures that do not lead to lower prices at the pharmacy counter.

Some experts say it's a well-worn tactic, and harkens to that earlier anti-tobacco fight.

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