Politics and Prescription Drug Prices

Politics and Prescription Drug Prices

Campaign season is well underway, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a presidential candidate who hasn't discussed prescription-drug pricing. Americans are concerned with rising costs, and rightfully so. But I can't help but notice that none of the candidates have explained how we got here.

We're consumed with presidential politics and campaign rhetoric. So quickly we forget or ignore that politics and policy are not one and the same. Never has that been as evident as when a snickering Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, took to the microphone and plead the Fifth at a congressional hearing on prescription drug prices.

Congress is tasked with overseeing just about everything under the sun, and in many cases congressional oversight is a good and noble thing. In recent years, however, hearings have become a venue for political grandstanding that ultimately doesn't result in answers or action.

Sure, the committee was well-meaning to call into question Shkreli's actions, but what I think is most striking for Americans, and likely members of Congress, is that we didn't learn anything new about the way prescription pricing works. Who is setting rates — is it pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, or the government? How are doctor and patient needs factored in? What impact do ever-changing costs for common treatments have on the average patient?

So, what was the goal? To make Shkreli look bad? I'd argue he's done a pretty good job of that on his own. Was it to make the pharmaceutical industry out to be the bad guy? In general, drug companies are the primary driver of innovative treatments and new therapies.

Offering an opening diatribe, the ranking member of the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, bragged that "Secretary Clinton has sent a letter to the FDA proposing stronger regulatory action to crack down on companies that engage in price gouging." Representative Cummings may not have been wearing a Hillary T-shirt, but clearly politics is in play here.

As a patient and consumer, I see firsthand how drug prices have been on the rise, but at whose hand? That's the question this congressional panel should have been answering.

To examine the whole picture is to recognize that the surge in drug prices is one part Obamacare, one part private health insurers responding to its incentives. As we all know by now, when government steps in, red tape follows. In this case, insurers emboldened by Obamacare's mandates and expansion efforts now have significant control over drug-pricing formulas.

Further, prescriptions have built-in price controls: generic drugs, which cost 80 to 85 percent less than their brand-name equivalents. But as Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has noted, the FDA "is drowning in a backlog of applications." Today an estimated 4,300 generic drug applications are awaiting approval, with submissions outpacing approvals by a 3-to-1 margin. As a result, patients are being denied access to more affordable versions of their prescriptions.

So now what?

First, Congress should put a halt on these dog-and-pony hearings that provide hours of campaign fodder until they're willing to look at how prescription pricing actually works.

Secondly, the government must acknowledge its own regulatory failings, which are not limited to generic drugs but apply to new brand-name drugs as well. A Manhattan Institute study found that cutting down on FDA red tape and bringing drugs to market just one year faster could deliver $4 trillion in value to patients annually.

And finally, government needs to get out of the exam room. These decisions and the ability to access quality, affordable health care belong in the hands of patients and doctors — not big insurance companies in bed with big government.

Ultimately, what Americans on both sides of the aisle are looking for — in congressional as well as presidential candidates — is genuine bipartisan leadership on health-care solutions, not factless finger-pointing sessions disguised as real governing.

Tara Wall is a media analyst and Essence magazine political contributor. A former senior adviser to the Republican National Committee and three Republican presidential campaigns, she is also a former health-care company executive and public affairs director at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children & Families.

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