Senators Hickenlooper and Bennet discuss reducing drug prices

Newly elected Sen. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet provided a federal perspective on lowering prescription drug costs on a panel at the Colorado Department of Healthcare Policy and Financing (HCPF)’s Policy Summit Tuesday. Moderated by HCPF’s Executive Director Kim Bimestefer, the panel also included Marissa Schlaifer, vice president of Policy and Regulatory Affairs at OptumRx, and Gerard Anderson, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hospital Finance Management.



Senator Bennet, who has been active in the Congressional effort to reduce prescription drug costs, believes these efforts have a much better chance under the incoming Biden Administration than they did with President Trump.

“Donald Trump ran on lowering drug prices and really didn’t do much to do that,” Bennet said. “I think President Biden has a real opportunity because there is enormous desire among Democrats, Republicans and Independents to reduce these drug prices and save millions of Americans money on their prescription drugs.”

He referenced HR 3, which House Democrats pushed forward last year. The bill would empower the Health and Human Services Secretary to negotiate the prices of up to 250 drugs, something currently not permitted. It would also cap out of pocket costs for seniors to two-thousand dollars a year; these costs currently have no cap, he said. He is also working with other Senate Finance Committee members on a bipartisan drug cost reduction package.

“I talked to incoming Secretary Becerra, who’s been a fierce advocate of protecting patients,” he said. “We talked about steps they might take as an administration to crack down on practices like dramatically increasing the price of drugs or actively preventing the development of generics.”

Hickenlooper emphasized the value of generic drugs, and said exclusivity laws are a significant driver of the limited accessibility and high costs of these drugs. He and Bimestefer agree — reforming patent laws is key to fixing this.

“I think the most important thing to think about is how some of these things that get in the way of the adoption of generic drugs actually impact people,” Hickenlooper said. “Clearly they’re the fastest-growing consumer health care expense, and generics are exactly the same drugs but they’re 20percent or 70 percent less. When they [prescription drugs] don’t get to market, that makes it hard for real competition, and as someone who spent a big part of my life in small business, that always ends up meaning higher cost.”

He added that 29 percent of Americans refuse to buy medicine due to high costs. According to him, this increases both the overall cost of medicine and the prevalence of health care disparities. He also condemned pharmaceutical companies’ immense spending on direct to consumer advertising.

“Decisions about the best medication should be made between the patient and doctor,” Hickenlooper said. “These pharmaceutical companies are spending billions of dollars on marketing and sales — a few companies are spending even more on marketing than they do on research. That marketing can push both patients and providers to higher-cost prescription drugs, and I think that’s a real challenge.”

Bennet believes one of the most important solutions to high prescription costs is allowing Medicare to negotiate its prices, which it is currently prohibited from doing.

He also voiced his support for value-based payments, the lack of which is a “reflection of how broken the health care market really is,” he said.

“It’s incredibly important for us to encourage innovations at small companies, in Colorado and across the country, who are working on things like gene therapies and actual cures to rare diseases,” Bennet said. “It is absolutely incredible to me that we have some treatments that can cure diseases after a single round of therapy, and that’s not just great for patients, it’s great for our country and great for our economy that we’re able to do that.”

These therapies, however, often cost up to $1 million according to Bennet. Consequently, there is no market for them and the small developers that make them are not able to stay in business, he said.

As a solution, Bennet said the country needs to implement value-based payments. These would permit the government to fund treatments depending on their effectiveness, he said.

“I’ve worked with the Trump Administration to start clarifying regulations that will allow Medicare to enter into these types of agreements, and I have an actual piece of legislation with Sen. Todd Young, who’s a Republican from Indiana, that would create a value-based model to pay for innovative antibiotics called the PASTEUR Act,” Bennet said.

According to Hickenlooper, the fast development of COVID-19 vaccines is a testament to what public-private health care partnerships can accomplish.

“This is one of the great examples that we’re seeing with the COVID vaccine of just how effective the pharmaceutical industry can be at its best when it partners with the government,” he said. “Bringing this vaccine to market in less than a year without compromising safety or efficacy — it’s amazing. It has resolved a powerful public-private partnership, it’s going to America free of charge. This is what happens when we work together.”

He believes there will be a “dramatic change” in vaccine distribution efforts once Biden takes office.