U.S. lawmakers step up drug-pricing probes, add Valeant pharmacy to their target list

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, already casting an uncomfortable spotlight on pharma pricing, set up a task force this month and promised "meaningful action." Now the committee is plotting its next course of action, planning a hearing in 2016 to investigate companies' pricing policies.

The panel has already reached out to drug companies for information, M.J. Henshaw, a committee spokeswoman, told Reuters. But the investigation is still in its early stages and "at this point we don't feel that a subpoena is a necessary step that needs to be taken," Henshaw said.

The news comes amid more pricing pushback, as the Committee takes aim at sky-high prices from poster-child companies such as Valeant Pharmaceuticals ($VRX) and Turing Pharmaceuticals. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), a top Democrat on the panel, is petitioning Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz to subpoena Valeant CEO J. Michael Pearson and Turing chief Martin Shkreli to turn over documents about price increases. In a recent note to Chaffetz, Cummings also pointed out Valeant's questionable dealings with specialty pharmacy Philidor. Valeant has since severed its ties with the pharmacy.

In that vein, the vocal pricing critic sent a letter to Pearson asking to interview a group of Valeant execs who allegedly had direct dealings with Philidor. "These allegations suggest that Valeant employees may have been personally involved in questionable billing practices that led Valeant to cut ties with Philidor last month," Cummings said in the letter seen by Reuters.

Meanwhile, a group of Democrats on the committee has launched its Affordable Drug Pricing Task Force to take "meaningful action to combat the skyrocketing costs of pharmaceuticals," the group says. About 77% of Americans--regardless of political party--think that rising drug prices are a pressing issue, and this should be taken as a political call to action, Cummings said earlier this month. "This is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it's an American issue," he said.

The U.S. Senate is also taking drugmakers to task over price increases. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging led by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) unveiled a new probe into drug pricing at Valeant and Turing, demanding information about drugs with recent price increases. Prices for Valeant's two cardiac drugs Isuprel and Nitropress have shot up 525% and 212%, respectively. And Turing jacked up the price of Daraprim to $750 a pill from $13.50 after acquiring the drug. The company has since said that it would roll back the increase, but hasn't offered a hard-and-fast plan for doing that yet. Reportedly, Shkreli plans a 10% cut by year's end, which would take the price down to $675 each.

Drug pricing is also taking its toll overseas. U.K. price watchdog the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently rejected Roche's ($RHHBY) breast cancer drug Kadcyla--again--saying that its price was too high to justify routine use by the country's National Health Service (NHS), Reuters reports. The U.K.'s Cancer Drugs Fund, which typically picks up treatments turned down by NICE, recently agreed to include the med after Roche offered a substantial discount.

Still, NICE's decision points to a bigger issue, as prices for new, life-extending cancer drugs continue to rise. And for some industry critics, the trend is unsustainable. "There is not blank check big enough to solve this problem," Karl Claxton, professor of health economics at the University of York, told Reuters.

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