Congress takes aim at prescription drug costs in hearing but gets sidetracked by ACA repeal bill

Sen. Elizabeth Warren said the timing for the hearing doesn't make sense while Republican senators are writing a "secret bill to take away prescription drug benefits" from American citizens, CNBC reported.

A bipartisan Senate health committee held the first of three hearings on the rising costs of prescription drugs but didn’t get very far. In many ways it became a gripe session for Democrats over their Republican counterparts’ closed-door session and secret meetings about their healthcare reform replacement bill.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing was supposed to focus on the path an FDA-approved prescription drug takes from the manufacturer to patient, and how this path affects what the patient pays. Subsequent hearings aim to look at the entire prescription drug process and patient access to affordable drugs.

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said the timing for the hearing doesn't make sense while Republican senators are writing a "secret bill to take away prescription drug benefits" from American citizens, CNBC reported

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Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., agreed, stating the conversation is irrelevant because “if 23 million Americans lose access to health insurance, they can't afford prescription drugs. So it doesn't really matter what we do."

Democrats are frustrated that Senate Republicans haven’t held hearings on their version of the Affordable Care Act replacement bill, yet plan to have a vote on the legislation in a matter of weeks. A House version, the American Health Care Act, would permit states to apply to waivers that would allow insurance companies in their states to eliminate essential health benefits, including coverage for prescription drugs, that were required under the ACA.

President Donald Trump pledged on the election campaign trail that he would take action to make sure prescription drugs are more affordable.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chaired the hearing, had hoped the hearing would lead the committee to agree on basic facts, such as whether prescription drug prices are going up or down, and by how much. “We want to know as prescription drugs move from FDA approval through a complex process and into the hands of patients, where does the money go? What are rebates and what is their impact on consumers? Who actually pays the cost of prescription drugs,” he said in his prepared opening statement.

But a new Consumer Reports survey indicates that at least 28 million Americans have experienced a spike in the cost of their prescription medications in the past 12 months. Four million of those surveyed indicated the price was so high they couldn’t afford to pay for the prescription, NBC News reported.

And a recent Health Affairs blog post notes that approximately 10% of all healthcare spending is on prescription drugs, and the spending continues to rise. More than $1 out of every $5 spent on prescription drugs goes toward profits in the pharmaceutical distribution system, according to the post.

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