Senators Collins, McCaskill Urge Action To Block Drastic Drug Price Hikes

Ron Sachs

WASHINGTON (AP) — Angered by skyrocketing drug prices, a pair of senators on Wednesday urged Congress to block companies from cornering the market on old, off-patent drugs.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., released findings from a year-long investigation into companies like Turing Pharmaceuticals, which generated national outrage last year after increasing the price of a life-saving anti-infection drug by more than 700 percent.

Committee investigators concluded that Turing and several other companies "engaged in price gouging ... to make massive profits from decades-old life-saving therapies." The lawmakers, top members of the Special Committee on Aging, presented similar findings at three hearings over the past year.

The 131-page report comes as lawmakers and pharmaceutical executives try to gauge President-elect Donald Trump's interest in government intervention to curb rising drug prices, a leading health care concern among patients.

While campaigning, Trump said he would support efforts to allow Medicare — the massive government health plan for seniors — to directly negotiate drug prices with manufacturers, a step long opposed by the pharmaceutical lobby. That policy does not appear among the health care proposals currently outlined on Trump's website. It does outline a policy allowing importation of cheaper drugs from foreign countries like Canada, another proposal opposed by drug-makers.

Representatives for Trump did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The committee report draws similarities between the tactics of companies like Turing and Valeant Pharmaceuticals and investment firms that profit by buying under-valued stocks and pushing up prices. Investigators note that Turing's former CEO, Martin Shkreli, and several other executives probed by the committee previously worked at hedge funds.

"This may help explain why these companies may have been run more like hedge funds than pharmaceutical companies," states the report.

Shkreli stepped down as the head of Turing after prosecutors charged him with securities fraud late last year. Valeant is the target of more than 10 government probes, plus multiple shareholder lawsuits.

Company spokespeople did not immediately respond to inquiries.

An AP analysis published last month found that congressional investigations have had little effect on drug prices. A review of nearly 30 brand-name and generic medications targeted by Congress — including those probed by the Committee — showed that most have not budged since coming under federal scrutiny.

Many pharmaceutical companies increase prices annually as a matter of doing business. But the drastic increases profiled in the report helped turn drug pricing into a national issue, reverberating from late-night television to the campaign. The tactics seemed to confirm some of the public's worst fears about pharmaceutical companies: that they are more Wall Street-driven investment vehicles than actual makers of medicines.

"We've got to find ways to increase competition for medicines and ensure that patients and their families aren't being gouged," said McCaskill.

McCaskill and Collins call for several legislative steps intended to increase price competition, including giving priority review to drugmakers that develop cheaper versions of drugs that are only available from a single company. Elsewhere, lawmakers favor short-term importation of drugs in short supply to help bring down U.S. prices.

To prevail, any proposals to lower prices would have to overcome the pharmaceutical industry's pervasive influence on Capitol Hill. Drugmakers and related health businesses spent more than $385 million on lobbying last year, more than any other industry, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

LIKE US ON FACEBOOK