House quashes Senate amendment to force drug price inclusion in pharma TV ads

Alex Azar
HHS Sec. Alex Azar, shown here appearing before Congress, may have to go it alone to force pharma to list drug prices in ads, after a bipartisan amendment failed to pass the House.

Sticker prices in drug ads might be off the table again, thanks to some in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bipartisan amendment that included $1 million in funding to study and implement drug pricing in ads passed the Senate in late August but was stripped from a bill in the lower chamber of Congress last week.

The move irritated the amendment’s two cosponsoring senior senators, Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and both responded quickly and caustically on Twitter. Several House representatives who obviously were not responsible for the change also tweeted their disgust.

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Durbin wrote in part that the only groups opposed to drug pricing in ads were, “big pharma & their representatives in Congress.” He specifically called out the House GOP as the perpetrators of the amendment spike, adding, “We need transparency & it’s time to put consumers ahead of Big Pharma.”

House Democrat Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut agreed with Durbin on Twitter that it was House Republicans who pulled the measure, noting that they were “siding with Big Pharma against American families.” Another House Democrat, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, also chimed in on Twitter saying she had sent a support letter alongside a bipartisan group of House members and “the Pharma lobby sill managed to make it go away.”

Grassley didn’t call out his own party, but he did hit the caps lock button in complaint about the move to strike the amendment as "EMBARRASSING to bow to BIG PHARMA at expense of consumers.”

However, the idea may not be dead yet. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers in June when asked about his authority to force pharma companies to put drug prices in ads that while he would “always appreciate Congressional backing to back me up on that,” the information falls under “fair balance” risk and benefit regulation.

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“I think it’s an important piece of information that consumers are entitled to along with cost and benefit. I think it’s part of the cost,” he said, according to a C-SPAN video recording of those proceedings.

Azar also acknowledged that he would “undoubtedly be sued” over such a measure, and he’s likely correct about that. Several pharma and ad industry groups or experts have protested the inclusion of drug prices in ads as overreaching, using the fair balance argument by the FDA and potentially unconstitutional in silencing of free commercial speech.