Thank politicians—and maybe your doctor—as the drug price advertising debate drags on

Chuck Grassley
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is leading bipartisan congressional support to force pharma companies to disclose drug list prices in ads. (Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Politicians on both sides of the aisle refuse to let go of the proposal to force pharma companies to add drug pricing to ads.  But Washington insiders aren't solely to blame. Consumers and many physicians are quite keen on the idea, too.

The recent CMS proposal pushing for sticker prices, for instance, drew more than 140 comments, from average citizens and doctors—who mostly put up strong affirmations and pledges to support the rule—to the other side, where drug companies and advertising advocates expressed equally strong opinions in the opposite direction.

Still, it is politicians who are most responsible for keeping the issue on the front burner. Both Democrats and Republicans are determined to do something to appease constituents worried over high profile drug price increases now in the news on a regular basis.

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Leading Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted just this week: “Big Pharma is doing everything it can to keep raking in the cash on the backs of people with diabetes. We need to level the playing field for working people with life-threatening conditions who are getting crushed by outrageous drug prices.” That was in response to an NPR story about the rising cost of insulin. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who becomes Senate Finance Committee head in January, backs the measure as well. He said in September in a floor speech that 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,” Grassley said.

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The problem in getting to a speedy and legal conclusion is that the naysayers have legitimate First Amendment arguments that will have to be aired in court. That means lawsuits will pile up in opposition, even if CMS can get the proposal pushed through.

That’s why we’re predicting a slow roll on this through 2019. At some point, drugmakers could be forced to add those price tags—whether by the government or a rogue pharma company or two that add list prices as a way to claim transparency and differentiate their products.

But what does it mean for all drugs if and when they get price labels like cars? Stay tuned—and bring popcorn. It’s going to get much more interesting—and contentious—before it is all settled.