Congress spurs feds to investigate sky-high generic drug prices

Sen. Bernie Saunders (I-VT)

Hefty increases in drug spending have lawmakers all riled up, and a new voice is joining the growing chorus of discontent. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is weighing in on the issue, planning to investigate the cause of soaring generic drug prices amid congressional concern.

As The Chicago Tribune reports, the department said in a letter received by Sen. Bernie Saunders (I-VT) that it would review quarterly prices for the top 200 generic drugs from 2005 to 2014 to see the extent to which the price increases were greater than inflation. Sanders, a vocal opponent of rising drug costs, has suggested that generic drug companies pay a rebate to Medicaid if their drug prices outpaced inflation--a change that would save taxpayers $500 million over 10 years, he said.

"Generic drugs were meant to help make medications affordable for millions of Americans who rely on prescriptions to manage their health needs," Sanders said (as quoted by the Tribune). "It is unacceptable that Americans pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs."

The federal pushback comes as prescription drug costs reach new heights. Consumers and insurers paid an average of $13.14 per prescription for the 50 most popular generics in 2010. Last year, they paid $62.10--a 373% increase, according to the Tribune story.

And U.S. drug spending continues to spiral upward as hep C therapies such as Gilead Sciences' ($GILD) $84,000-per-treatment-course drug Sovaldi hit the market and drugmakers roll out pricey new meds. U.S. drug spending jumped more than $43 billion to $374 billion last year with a record-setting 4.3 billion prescriptions filled, according to a report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. The increases were partly fueled by a faster turnaround in new drug approvals and expanded coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, state governments are dealing with the fallout over increased drug spending. In February, California Assembly Member David Chiu proposed a new measure that would require drug companies for the first time to reveal information on how they price the industry's most expensive meds. Earlier this week, Missouri lawmakers said that drug costs for the state's Medicaid program jumped 33% to $1.16 billion from 2010 to 2014. And the trend isn't going away anytime soon, Joe Parks, director of the state's Medicaid program, said at a recent hearing.

"There is no cap and I expect it will keep going up," Parks told the Missouri House Budget committee. "This country has decided as public policy to manage its pharmacy prices on an open market model."

- read the Chicago Tribune story

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