Satan, holy water and pharma ads: Senators get fiery in push to pass DTC price tag rule

The Senate approved an amendment to add drug prices to TV ads after impassioned speeches from the floor on the need for that transparency. (Pixabay)

What do polarized senators dislike more than their partisan opponents? Pharma advertising, apparently. Two senior senators from opposite sides of the aisle—Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa—held court on the floor of the Senate last week to help push through an amendment that would force pharma companies to disclose drug prices in its advertising.

The now-approved amendment, part of a spending bill that still requires House approval, also allocates $1 million to finance the rule-writing needed to set up the plan. If implemented, the FDA would consider drug ads without prices as labeling violations. The measure would also add more regulations—and likely more cost—to creating and producing drug advertising.

Durbin, the Democratic whip, stood up to condemn drug companies’ branded advertising strategies, lamenting the fact that Americans see nine drug ads on television every day.

“You know what I’m talking about,” he said. “It’s the ads with the unpronouceable names of the drugs and then that long mumbling ‘don’t take it if you’re allergic to it, this may kill you,’ [and] all of the warnings that they give you at the end of the ad—over and over and over again. The pharmaceutical industry spends $6 billion a year so that we get a steady diet of these drug ads."

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

Durbin specifically called out AbbVie’s Humira, brandishing a mock-up ad that included a red banner price tag of $5,500 per month—an unsubstantiated price, incidentally. SSR Health estimates the annual non-Medicaid cost for Humira at about $43,000 or about $3,500 per month.

“And you wonder why the price of healthcare is spiraling out of control?” he said.

The price tags would add transparency, Durbin said, so consumers will “know then what it really costs. And we’ll also know when they start raising it again and again and again.”

His final shot? “The pharmaceutical industry hates this bill and this amendment like the devil hates holy water. They don’t want to tell you what it's gonna cost. They want you to go into that doctor’s office and say, 'I just gotta have Humira, there’s this little patch on my elbow and I absolutely have to have it.'”

Grassley voiced his support, too, in somewhat less fiery language. Consumers should have pricing information about drugs just as they do when choosing which car or gasoline to buy, he said.

“The drug companies want you to know that there’s a drug out there to help you, they want you to know the benefits of the drug, so why don’t they also want you to know about the price of the drug? By not having that information out there, it’s simply not a transparent way of doing business,” he said.

Grassley went for drama in a different way: the battle against pharma lobbyists. "[W]hat we’re up against is a very powerful interest in this town” he intoned, and, in an aside, complained about pharma companies’ "pay for delay" patent settlements.

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

The advertising price tag idea was advanced in May as part of the Trump administration’s blueprint of proposals aimed at bringing down drug prices. Senators got on board with the idea soon after. Last year, the American Medical Association hatched the idea to include drug prices in advertising in a resolution at its annual meeting.

Pharma industry and ad industry representatives are against the measure; they question the value of a price tag that wouldn't reflect the true cost of a product, given the wide variety of insurance coverage and its attendant rebates, co-pays and deductibles. The leading industry trade group PhRMA says disclosing list prices in DTC ads wouldn’t benefit patients and that any requirement to do so would raise significant First Amendment concerns.