HHS touts work on drug prices 100 days after unveiling ‘American Patients First’ blueprint

Drug prices healthcare costs pill money
The Department of Health and Human Services said that the FDA issued a record-number of generic drug approvals in July. (Pixabay)

The White House unveiled its blueprint to reduce drug prices 100 days ago, and the Department of Health and Human Services is marking the milestone with a report that touts its efforts so far under the plan.

Since the “American Patients First” plan was announced on May 11 through Aug. 15, the agency has seen 60% fewer price increases on branded drugs than during that same window in 2017, according to the report (PDF). In addition, the report found 54% more decreases on generic and brand-name drugs in that same period when compared to the year before.

These changes are just the “tip of the iceberg” in what the agency has planned, Secretary Alex Azar said on a call with reporters. Dan Best, senior advisor to the secretary for drug pricing reform, stopped short of giving the blueprint total credit for the increases and decreases but said he’s never seen behavior like this before.

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“I don’t want to speak for [drug] manufacturers, but it’s unprecedented to see action like that,” Best said.

RELATED: New HHS guidance aimed at curbing drug companies’ ‘abusive behavior’ in Medicaid, Azar says

In the time since the blueprint was released, two drug companies have either lowered prices or rolled back increases, 13 agreed to price freezes for the rest of the year and four called off planned increases, according to the report.

These changes were not made “through altruism,” Azar said, but because pharmaceutical companies know major changes are in the pipeline.

“They’re skating to where they see the puck is going,” Azar said. “They know we are about nothing short of the fundamental transformation of this entire segment of the economy: how drugs are priced and how they’re paid for.”

The report bucks statements from skeptics who have pointed to ongoing trends of drug increases since Trump's Blueprint announcement, not drops. In July, a Wells Fargo report said drug manufacturers actually raised prices on more than 100 drugs in June and the first two days of July alone, CNN reported. Companies like drug giant Pfizer deferred planned increases, but only until the end of the year, NBC reported.

Azar also responded to concerns that he’s in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies to attack pharmacy benefit managers, an issue raised by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Tina Smith, D-Minn., in a letter sent to the secretary last week. Azar said the current drug pricing system offers incentives for everyone involved—including both PBMs and pharma companies—to raise prices.

“I make it a practice not to blame any individual part of the drug channel but to blame all parts of the drug channel,” he said.

RELATED: FDA unveils guidance that aims to make it easier for generics to enter the drug market

The Food and Drug Administration has led the charge on HHS’ drug pricing efforts, and the report notes that it approved a record-number 126 generic drugs in July. Plus, Best said that the agency’s workgroup on importation has met and is “outlining its plan of action.”

The FDA convened the group last month to study importation as a solution for high prices in certain cases, where a drug is off-patent but still only has one manufacturer.

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