Sticker prices in drug ads just got closer with bipartisan backing in Senate

hhs
HHS' proposal to force drugmakers to list prices in advertising could get a vote this week via a bipartisan amendment added to a 2019 funding bill. (Sarah Stierch/CC BY 4.0)

Think President Donald Trump's proposal to slap price tags on drug advertising is all talk and no action? Think again. Over the past couple of weeks, the idea has gained steam—and bipartisan backing, including from Democrats often critical of the president. So much so, in fact, that a bill containing the provision could see a Senate vote this week.

Last week, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, proposed funding-bill amendments that would require pharma companies to put drug pricing in their ads. On Monday, the effort picked up major support with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Angus King, I-Maine, signing on as co-sponsors. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., joined on Tuesday. The proposed mandate was first introduced in May as part of the Trump Administration's drug-pricing "blueprint," a slate of proposals officials say will bring down drug prices.

The senators who've put that idea into legislation bring veteran political experience, clout and outspoken views. Gillibrand, who is said to have White House aspirations, often speaks out against Trump policies she disagrees with. She's also an emerging voice in the political pushback on pharma pricing; she recently introduced a bill designed to stop price gouging on prescription drugs and has co-sponsored at least four others this year that would improve drug access and affordability. 

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She—along with Durbin, King and Brown—also sent letters to eight Big Pharma companies in May asking them to voluntarily add drug prices to their direct-to-consumer ads. Gillibrand, Brown and King did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

RELATED: PhRMA points finger at insurers on new drug cost website for consumers

The Republican-driven H.R. 6147 appropriations bill, on which the Durbin-Grassley amendment is proposed, passed the House on July 20 and is expected to get a Senate vote this week. The fate of the drug ad requirement won’t be known until then. However, the widening dual-party support can’t be seen as a good sign for the industry.

Pharma industry lobbying group PhRMA remains opposed. Holly Campbell, PhRMA deputy vice president for public affairs, said via email that the association has publicly noted that disclosing list prices won’t benefit patients. List prices aren't usually the prices insurers pay, and given the wide variety of drug-coverage plans, wouldn't be good indicators of what patients would end up paying at the pharmacy, PhRMA has said.

RELATED: Trump blasts Pfizer price hikes, pledges a governmental response

As part of PhRMA’s recently filed 130-page reply to HHS’ request for comment on its drug pricing blueprint, the trade group wrote that including list prices might scare patients off and deter them from talking to a doctor about getting a treatment.

“In addition to the policy concerns, any consideration of requiring disclosure of list prices in DTC ads must be squared with FDA’s statutory authority and First Amendment restrictions against compelled speech," the PhRMA document stated. "We do not believe that FDA currently has the statutory authority to impose such a requirement or that such a requirement would be constitutional.”