State Comptroller Kevin Lembo
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo. Arielle Levin Becker / File Photo
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo Arielle Levin Becker / File Photo

Washington – Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo has joined a growing Democratic attack on high drug prices, an issue expected to be at the center of many Democratic election campaigns next year.

He was supposed to be there in person, but fog and rain grounded his plane and kept him from testifying at a Capitol Hill hearing on drug pricing Wednesday. Lembo submitted written testimony instead.

He said the reasons drug prices are rising include market consolidation, new pricing models and “outright profiteering.”

“Projections indicate no future relief as pharmacy costs are expected to continue to rise at an exorbitant rate in the coming years. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are recording historic profits,” Lembo said. “These drugs – lifesaving, life-changing medications – are not yachts, private jets, and other material icons of wealth reserved only for the privileged few.”

Wednesday’s hearing was held by the Democratic Steering Committee, a maneuver that allows House Democrats to convene a hearing in a chamber controlled by Republicans.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, is a member of the steering committee. She is also a member of a new Affordable Drug Pricing Task Force created by House Democrats.

At Wednesday’s hearing, DeLauro lambasted drug companies like Turing Pharmaceuticals, which hiked the price of Daraprim — a 62-year-old drug  that treats rare parasitic infections — from $13.50 to $750 a pill.

DeLauro also cited the drug pricing practices of Valeant Pharmaceuticals and of Gilead Sciences, a  drug company that charges $1,000 a pill for a hepatitis C treatment.

“Every day we see the threat that spiraling drug costs pose to Medicare, Medicaid and HIV treatments,” DeLauro said.

Gilead Sciences did not have an immediate response.

PhRMA, the trade association for the nation’s drug companies, said those concerned  about the cost of prescription drugs should look at spending across the health care system “and not just at the share of spending that goes toward life-changing medicines.”

“New medicines are transforming care for patients fighting debilitating diseases like cancer, hepatitis c, high cholesterol and more,” said PhRMA spokeswoman Holly Campbell. “At the same time, the share of spending on medicines has been consistent for more than 50 years.” Campbell said drug companies have been able to hold prices down “due to a competitive marketplace for medicines where generic utilization rates are high and robust competition among brand name medicines.”

She also said there should be a greater focus on the high cost sharing required by many insurance companies and restrictions on access to certain drugs by insurers that make certain medicines unaffordable.

Democrats like Hillary Clinton, her party’s frontrunner for the White House, have seized on the issue of the high cost of drugs, which she says is driving health care costs up and putting needed drugs out to the reach of some patients, even under the Affordable Care Act.

Health insurers have also redoubled their efforts to press Congress to do something about the high cost of drugs.

After 18 months of investigation, the Senate Finance Committee issued a report Tuesday that said Gilead Sciences knew its $1,000-a-pill  price would put hepatitis C treatment out of reach of many patients and cause “extraordinary problems” for government health programs.

“This investigation underscores the disconnect between drug company rhetoric and reality,” said America’s Health Insurance Plans President Marilyn Tavenner. “It’s time for drug companies to be held to the same access and affordability standards that apply to the rest of the health system, and that starts with greater transparency in drug pricing.”

In his written testimony, Lembo said that as the state comptroller, he  administers health benefits for more than  200,000 state and municipal employees, retirees and their dependents.

“The sharp rise in pharmacy costs comes at a time when we are seeing great success in limiting medical spending by promoting preventive care and chronic disease management through the state’s Health Enhancement Program,” Lembo said. “The drastic increases in pharmacy costs are undermining our medical cost savings.”

Brian Lehman, head of the pharmacy benefits program of the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System; Jeremy Green, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University; and Lynn Quincy of Consumers Union testified on the impacts of high-cost medicine.

But it’s not clear what steps, if any, Congress can take to slow the rise in pharmaceutical prices. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., backs legislation that would repeal the ban preventing Medicare from negotiating directly with pharmaceutical companies.

The American Medical Association recently decided to lobby Congress to ban  “direct-to-consumer” drug advertising that urges people to “ask their doctor” if a certain drug  is right for them.

AMA Board Chair-elect Patrice A. Harris said support for an ad ban “reflects concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices.”

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Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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