UPDATED: McCaskill turns up heat on Valeant with Senate pricing probe

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill

Last week, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said she wasn't quite finished probing Valeant's ($VRX) drug pricing policies after the company's CEO J. Michael Pearson sent her a letter with scant information on its price increases for a pair of heart meds. True to her word, McCaskill is turning up the heat on the Canadian pharma, launching a bipartisan Senate investigation into drug pricing by companies including Valeant and Turing Pharmaceuticals.

Along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), McCaskill is heading up a probe from the Senate Special Committee on Aging that will look into "dramatic increases" in prices that "looked like little more than price gouging," McCaskill said in a statement. The pair sent letters to Valeant, Turing, Retrophin ($RTRX) and Rodelis Therapeutics requesting information and documents about drugs with recent price increases.

In particular, the committee wants to learn more about Valeant's cardiac drugs Isuprel and Nitropress after prices for the two drugs shot up 525% and 212%, respectively. McCaskill and Collins are also petitioning Turing CEO Martin Shkreli for more information, probing Turing's recent acquisition of Daraprim. After picking up the drug in September, Turing jacked up the price to $750 a pill from $13.50. But the company then said it would roll back the increase.

"We need to get to the bottom of why we're seeing huge spikes in drug prices that seemingly have no relationship to research and development costs," McCaskill said.

The committee is planning to hold an initial hearing on the issue on Dec. 9, and "will hold subsequent hearings, as needed, in the following months," the group said in a statement.

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings

The action comes amid more pushback as lawmakers continue to take aim at rising drug prices. Earlier this week, a group of House Democrats formed an Affordable Drug Pricing Task Force to take "meaningful action to combat the skyrocketing costs of pharmaceuticals," the group said at the time. Vocal price critic Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will lead the task force, bringing his price-fighting clout to the table.

In May, Cummings proposed generic-drug pricing legislation in the House as a counterpart to Sen. Bernie Sanders' Senate Bill, and the measure was incorporated into a recently approved budget agreement. Last month, Cummings and Sanders unveiled a drug pricing bill to fight sky-high drug prices, proposing some old tactics--including giving the government the power to directly negotiate drug prices--and also some new ideas such as leveraging pricing in other countries and increasing R&D and manufacturing transparency.

Meanwhile, Cummings, along with Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee, is petitioning Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz to subpoena Pearson and Shkreli to force the pair to turn over documents about price increases on drugs. The Democratic members sent their first letter to Chaffetz in September and sent a follow-up note this week, detailing some of the latest drug pricing fallout from Valeant and Turing--including Valeant's now severed tie-up with controversial specialty pharmacy Philidor--and urging the Chairman to take action.

"Of course, it is your prerogative as Chairman to set the Committee's agenda, but even if you have no interest in investigating these abuses on behalf of your own constituents, we ask that you not block us from investigating them on behalf of ours," the group said in its note to Chaffetz.

Cummings also had some fighting words for Republicans today at a press conference to announce the Affordable Drug Pricing Task Force. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 77% of Americans regardless of political party believe that skyrocketing drug prices are a pressing issue. And this should be taken as a call to action by all parties, Cummings said in a statement.

"Patients, hospitals, and healthcare providers in all of our districts are affected by this price gouging," Cummings said. "This is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it's an American issue. But Republicans don't want to act."

And the pricing backlash is spreading, with the Obama administration announcing this week that it would weigh in on the issue. HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said she would hold a daylong forum on Nov. 20 to talk about ways to speed up drug discovery while making meds more affordable. Burwell extended an invitation to everyone from pharma execs to patient advocates and will kick off the event with a panel on "the impact of rising pharmaceutical costs," The New York Times reports.

- here's the Senate Special Committee on Aging's statement
- read McCaskill's letter to Valeant (PDF)
- get McCaskill's letter to Turing (PDF)
- here's the House Committee's letter to Chaffetz (PDF)
- get the NYT story (sub. req.)

Special Reports: 10 big brands keep pumping out big bucks, with a little help from price hikes | The top 10 most expensive drugs of 2013

Editor's note: This article was updated with information about the press conference today to announce the Affordable Drug Pricing Task Force and a statement from Elijah Cummings.