Q&A: Access to Affordable Rx

With U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley

Q: How can transparency help lower drug prices?

A: Affordable health care ranks high among kitchen table concerns for millions of Americans. Paying for prescription medications and sorting out medical bills swallow a disproportionate amount of time and money for so many families. That explains why health care is a top issue for voters at the ballot box. Americans want access to affordable, quality health care. Period. Throughout my years representing Iowans in the U.S. Senate, I have worked to enact sunshine laws and conduct oversight to ensure competition laws are enforced. Curbing anticompetitive business practices, including anti-kickback payment laws, protect a free marketplace that allows consumers to benefit from lower prices, higher quality products and services, better choices and more innovation. Keeping check on how tax dollars are spent helps make sure government programs are working as intended and as effectively and efficiently as possible. From rooting out waste, fraud and abuse to getting the most bang for the buck, I have learned there’s typically one common denominator: transparency. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis observed more than a century ago: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” This concept aligns with my advocacy for whistleblowers and drives my legislative and oversight work to foster proper stewardship of tax dollars. To that end, consumers have a vested interest in knowing more about the financial relationships between their health care providers and pharmaceutical and medical device companies. My bipartisan sunshine law, known as the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, was enacted in 2010. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in 2014 launched its open payments database that provides consumers a tool to learn about financial ties between doctors and the medical industry. The open payments database does not imply wrongdoing; it fosters transparency. It gives patients a tool to take into account financial ties between those who prescribe their medicines with those who manufacture them, including payments for meals, travel, speaking honorariums, research grants and company ownership. Legislation I authored added nurse practitioners and physician assistants to these reporting requirements. That provision was enacted in 2018.  Sunshine laws open a window for the public to make informed decisions. Just like financial disclosure laws help inform voters and hold candidates running for public office accountable. Transparency improves accountability and empowers consumers. That’s also why I introduced bipartisan legislation last year to require pricing disclosure for drug ads by pharmaceutical companies. Direct-to-consumer advertising for pharmaceuticals is a booming business. Our amendment simply asked the drug companies to include the price of the drug among information already required. Consumers have the right to know about the benefits and side effects of advertised drugs. It’s entirely reasonable they should know how much it will cost, as well. The Trump administration unveiled rules in October that would require cost disclosures in direct-to-consumer ads by drug companies. Price transparency will help drive down prices by increasing competition and empowering consumers to seek the best value.

Q:  How else are you working to improve access to affordable prescription drugs?

A:  As incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee for the 116th Congress, I sent a strong signal in the opening days of this session. Improving access to affordable prescription drugs for American consumers and taxpayers is on my front burner. Right out of the chute, I introduced a bill that would allow for the safe importation of prescription drugs from Canada. Building on legislation I first introduced more than a decade ago, I am the lead sponsor of a new bipartisan bill with Senator Klobuchar. The Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act would fast-track access to more affordable medications from Canada and ensure the process is safe, legal and legitimate for U.S. consumers. Only approved pharmacies may fill authentic prescriptions. It’s an important step to help alleviate the exorbitant prices Americans pay for their medications. I also re-introduced a bipartisan bill that targets anticompetitive practices the pharmaceutical industry uses to game the system. The Preserve Access to Affordable Generics and Biosimilars Act I am co-sponsoring with Senator Amy Klobuchar will limit sweetheart deals that prevent or delay the introduction of affordable follow-on versions of branded pharmaceuticals. We expanded our bill to include what’s known as biosimilar drugs, in addition to generic drugs, to prevent anticompetitive practices and abusive pricing strategies that allow pharmaceutical companies to work in cahoots with one another to artificially inflate drug prices for patients.

As Americans rang in the New Year on Jan. 1, they woke up to news that pharmaceutical companies ushered in 2019 by raising prices on hundreds of prescription medicines. As I said in my floor speech a week after Thanksgiving Day, “It’s time we talk turkey with our friends in Big Pharma.” As the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I am ringing in the New Year with a message for Americans who are struggling to afford life-saving medicines. From my leadership position in the U.S. Senate, I will work to deliver a dose of common sense relief to help consumers, taxpayers and patients afford the medicine they need. Using legislative and oversight remedies to boost competition and foster transparency, I am committed to combat the rising costs of drugs with consumer-driven competition. It’s wrong to fleece American consumers who for decades have paid a whole lot more for prescription drugs than consumers in other countries. I will keep check on the Trump administration as it works to uproot exorbitant drug prices that have flourished here in the United States. That includes working to fix flaws in the prescription drug rebate system and making sure the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration continue working to flesh out cost-saving policies to help patients and the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission continue working to flush out bad actors gaming the system at the expense of American taxpayers, consumers and patients.