Lawmakers dig into 'skyrocketing' MS costs with probe into 7 drugmakers

Elijah Cummings Jason Chaffetz
Rep. Elijah Cummings, along with Rep. Peter Welch, announced a probe into MS drug costs.

After taking a strong interest in drug prices over the last two years, Congress has been quieter on the topic over the summer. That changed on Thursday as reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Peter Welch, D-Vt., announced a new probe into multiple sclerosis drug costs, digging into “skyrocketing” prices from seven pharmaceutical companies.

The lawmakers are asking Bayer, Biogen, Merck KGaA, Novartis, Sanofi, Teva and Roche for details about their pricing, asking why their drugs have multiplied in price over several years.

The largest percentage and dollar increase of the group was for Teva's Copaxone 20 mg, which was up more than 1,000% to $91,404 from its price at approval in 1996. Biogen’s Avonex soared 889% to $86,308 during the same period.

In letters to the drugmakers, Cummings and Welch referenced a study that showed companies increased MS drug prices in lockstep with one another. From 2008 to 2012, MS drug sales grew from $4 billion to nearly $9 billion, according to the study.

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“We believe no American should be forced to struggle to afford lifesaving medical treatments, especially when drug companies increase prices without warning, cause, or justification,” the lawmakers said in a release.

Representatives for Biogen, Novartis, Merck KGaA and Teva said the companies are reviewing the letters. A Bayer spokesperson said the company plans to respond directly. A Roche spokesperson said the company "will work with the Congressmen to address their request and questions."

Growing MS drug costs are no new phenomenon. Back in March, a Roche representative cited rising MS drug prices as part of the reasoning behind the company’s decision to price new entrant Ocrevus at a discount to competitors.

“We feel that the industry needs to start to reverse this trend, and believe that pricing Ocrevus 25% less than the comparator in our trials is an important first step,” a Roche spokesperson told FiercePharma at the time. The company's statement on Friday reiterated that message.

RELATED: Marathon halts launch of DMD drug as $89K price attracts congressional heat

Reps. Cummings and Welch have been involved in drug prices before, previously meeting with President Donald Trump to talk up their plan for Medicare price negotiations. But despite two years of high scrutiny on drug prices, Congress hasn’t passed legislation on the issue.

After reports recently surfaced that the Trump administration’s planned executive order on drug pricing would favor the industry, the congressmen wrote to the president expressing their concern. In January, Trump blasted the industry for “getting away with murder” and for its powerful lobby in Washington.

“Your statements and your promises gave many of us hope, but your planned executive actions suggest that you have abandoned these promises in favor of the very pharmaceutical lobby you warned of,” Cummings and Welch wrote to the president.

It’s also not the first time Cummings has reached out to a specific company for product pricing details. He questioned Marathon during the Emflaza fiasco that led that company to pause its launch and sell off the DMD drug to PTC Therapeutics. Cummings has also criticized beleaguered Valeant on some of its price increases.

RELATED: Merck KGaA disses Ocrevus-Rebif price comparison as 'misleading and oversimplified'

Along with another pharma critic in Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Cummings has pushed drug importation as another way to lower costs.

Meanwhile, as Congress is unable to make ground addressing pricing, dozens of states have taken the issue into their own hands, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. Legislators around the country have introduced 23 bills targeting PBM transparency, and 62 bills targeting pharma pricing transparency, according to the group.