As the new chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has laid out several key points of his upcoming agenda, including an "aggressive" approach toward high prescription drug costs.
According to the Washington Post, the Senate HELP Committee has "sweeping jurisdiction" over the country's health agencies and several aspects of federal health policy. As chair, Sanders will set the committee's agenda.
So far, Sanders has indicated that the committee's early focus will be on high prescription drug costs. "We're going to take a very hard look at the greed of the pharmaceutical industry," he said. "… We're working on a strategy right now that will be very aggressive."
Although specifics have yet to be confirmed, it is possible the committee will subpoena drug manufacturers to testify about their pricing practices.
"I have no doubt there will be tough hearings with people from industry being forced to testify, subpoenaed to testify, etc.," said a source from the pharmaceutical industry. "And I think that's going to be a real challenge."
However, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), the top Republican member of the committee, said he was concerned about how limiting prescription drug costs, and subsequently profits, could impact innovation.
"We've got to see the affordability, but we have to understand that there is a component of innovation driven by profit," Cassidy said. "And that's why I'm seeing people alive that would not be alive were it not for that innovation."
On the other hand, Cassidy said that both he and Sanders are "very interested" in addressing the ongoing nursing shortage.
Aside from prescription drug costs and workforce issues, Sanders said he hopes to focus on expanding primary care through federally qualified health centers, addressing the increased costs of COVID-19 vaccines on the commercial market, drug importation, and rural healthcare.
Cassidy said he hopes the committee will examine the implementation of the No Surprises Act, which he co-sponsored. Since the law went into effect early last year, widespread confusion about the federal arbitration process has led to a backlog of thousands of cases.
"The way they've implemented, aside from the uncertainty it's created, has been just awful," Cassidy said. "We've got this long backup and we've got something which Congress clearly didn't intend."
According to Sanders, the rollout of the No Surprises Act is "a legitimate concern" and "may be something that we'll want to take a look at."
According to a consultant with the pharmaceutical industry, companies are "intensify[ing] their proactive education and advocacy efforts, while also preparing to deal with fresh attacks from" Sanders as he prepares his HELP Committee agenda.
In a statement, Brian Newell, a spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the committee should also look at other players in the drug supply chain, such as pharmacy benefit managers or third-party administrators, who also play a role in high drug prices.
"If we're going to bend the curve in healthcare costs and make medicines more affordable for patients, we can't ignore the real drivers of healthcare spending or middlemen who are shifting costs onto people at the pharmacy," Newell said. "We look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle on solutions." (Adcox, Washington Examiner, 2/3; Sullivan, Axios, 1/30; Kinzel et al., Vermont Public, 2/1; Roubein, Washington Post, 2/6; Roubein, Washington Post, 1/11; Owermohle, STAT+ [subscription required], 2/2)
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