Pharma industry watchers have reason to be skeptical when the Trump Administration says it’s planning to take on drug prices, but President Donald Trump and his top health official on Monday insisted a plan is coming in about a month to dramatically lower them. At the same event, Trump said the Department of Justice is considering suing opioid companies for their role in a national crisis.
The remarks came in New Hampshire, where Trump and other officials gathered to discuss the opioid and addiction epidemic. New Hampshire is among the states most affected by the crisis, and the state has already sued Oxycontin developer Purdue Pharma alleging years of deceptive marketing.
In his speech, Trump said his Department of Justice is “looking very seriously into bringing major litigation against some of these drug companies.”
“Some states are already bringing it, but we’re thinking about bringing it at a very high federal level,” he added.
On another closely watched topic, Trump said his team plans to unveil a strategy to lower drug prices by taking aim at discounts that aren't making their way to consumers.
Alex Azar, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and former Eli Lilly executive, added that the government is “going to be rolling out … a whole slate of other proposals around how we decrease the price of drugs and how we bring discounts that the middlemen right now are getting; how those will go to our patients, to individuals.”
Amid growing pushback on prices, it’s been a popular talking point by pharma companies that increasing healthcare dollars are going to drug middlemen. Trade group PhRMA has proposed that discounts should directly benefit patients. When insurer UnitedHealthcare recently pledged to return drug discounts to some members, PhRMA praised the move.
On Monday, Trump also criticized pharma’s lobby and the “complexity of distribution” for driving U.S. prices higher than in other countries. The remarks echo some of the statements Trump made more than a year ago as President-elect during a press conference, famously saying pharma is “getting away with murder.” At the time, he pledged to implement “competitive bidding” to lower U.S. costs.
But since those initial comments and during his time in the office, the administration hasn’t advanced any major proposals on drug pricing. FDA chief Scott Gottlieb has worked to do what he can at his agency, such as boosting generic approvals and looking at regulatory changes, but the FDA isn’t tasked with overseeing drug prices.
After more than a year of threats, many industry watchers have tuned out to the president’s talk on drug prices, but Wells Fargo analyst David Maris wrote on Monday that the chance of reform remains.
“We believe that there is a high risk that healthcare and drug pricing will be a key part of the mid-term elections as well as the next presidential election, and we expect that the current administration will try to blunt any criticism that it hasn’t done enough with plans of its own before then,” he wrote in a note to clients.
Meanwhile, Trump’s talk of a federal opioid lawsuit closely follows Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement that the Department of Justice is filing a “statement of interest” to back hundreds of cases by cities and counties against manufacturers. The lawsuits allege drugmakers "grossly misrepresented" opioid risks and that distributors failed to monitor suspicious orders. Aside from those lawsuits, dozens of state attorneys general are conducting a probe of the industry’s marketing.