- Five U.S. Senators are asking some of the nation's biggest pharmaceutical companies to start voluntarily disclosing the prices for their drugs when advertising them.
- On Sunday, the office of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, announced letters requesting such actions had been sent to Pfizer, AbbVie, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson's Janssen, Merck & Co., GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis. Along with Durbin, Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-NH, Angus King, I-ME, Sherrod Brown, D-OH, and Kristen Gillibrand, D-NY, signed the letters.
- The requests put further legislative pressure on drug companies to be more transparent on pricing. Earlier this month, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said government agencies were looking at how to mandate list prices in direct-to-consumer DTC advertising. "When patients hear about a wonderful new drug, they should know whether it costs $100 or $50,000," he said on May 14.
Despite lawmakers' hoots and hollers, neither Congress nor the executive branch has found much success regulating drug prices. Powerful people — including the president himself — have expressed outrage over high price tags, but legislation continues to stall across the various reaches of the Senate and House of Representatives.
Though lowering costs seems to be the top priority, legislators are also pushing for more transparency.
Durbin, for instance, in November introduced Senate Bill 2157, which would require drugmakers to disclose the wholesale acquisition cost for a 30-day supply of their products in both direct-to-consumer ads and talks with prescribers. Companies that fail to comply could face a fine of up to $1 million for the first violation in any three-year period and up to $5 million for each additional violation within the period.
The bill was subsequently referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, but hasn't progressed since. Republicans who control both houses of Congress don't seem likely to get on board with the plan.
Whether or not S.2157 becomes law, the pricing transparency issue doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon. And with the looming threat of greater regulations, some government officials are urging drug companies to compromise early, on their own accord.
"When Pfizer spends $1.3 billion each year on its pharmaceutical advertisements in the United States, it should tell the whole story and provide clear information about drug prices, so patients can make informed decisions," the senators wrote in their letter to the pharma giant.
The senators also claim the pharmaceutical industry now spends more than $6 billion annually on drug advertising.
It's a sum that has drawn ire from organizations such as the American Medical Association, which argues DTC campaigns serve more to inflate bottom lines than to help patients. Indeed, Durbin's office notes the price tags on more than half of the top 20 drugs covered by Medicare have increased 50% over time.
DTC marketing has been a particular concern when it targets therapeutic areas like cancer. According to data from Kantar, spending on DTC ads for cancer medications rose 85% in 2017 as Merck, Bristol-Myers and other big name developers pumped millions into campaigns.