Trump craves big action on drug prices to take to the campaign trail

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There may be a modest slowdown this year in the growth of drug prices, but it’s nowhere near the seismic shift President Trump has called for. And that seems to be irking the president to no end.

Much of the president’s frustration has been borne by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former drug executive who until very recently pushed back on proposals to allow the importation of lower-cost drugs from Canada and give the government the tools to directly negotiate lower drug prices in the Medicare program, my Washington Post colleagues Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey and Laurie McGinley report.

But now, under intense pressure, Azar has reversed his long-standing opposition to at least one of those ideas: drug importation, an idea typically embraced by Democrats and dismissed by Republicans and the drug industry.

“Inspired by the president’s passion, Secretary Azar has been pushing FDA to go even bigger and broader on importation,” a senior administration official told my colleagues, although the official declined to detail specific policy changes.

It’s been a little more than a year since Trump promised Americans, in a speech from the Rose Garden, he would slash the price of prescription drugs in the United States. In that time, his administration has proposed some bold new regulations that could help move the needle, but only one has so far been finalized — a new requirement that went into effect this month for drugmakers to list prices in television ads.

While Azar has championed a proposal to eliminate the secretive rebates drug manufacturers pay to insurers, opposition to the idea from Domestic Policy Council head Joe Grogan is hamstringing the effort, my colleagues report. Grogan dislikes its estimated $180 billion price tag and doesn’t view the measure as central to the administration’s drug-pricing effort, they write.

There’s another proposal under review at the Office of Management and Budget to tie some Medicare drug prices to those paid by other countries, but it’s opposed by key Senate Republicans and the drug industry.

A senior administration official downplayed talk of tension between Azar and Grogan, saying the two, along with White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland, speak three times a week about what is happening on Capitol Hill.

And on Monday, the New York Post published a joint op-ed by Azar and Grogan praising a recent executive order from Trump aimed at more transparency around the prices negotiated between hospitals and insurers.

“President Trump has promised a better vision: a health care system that treats you like a person, not a number,” Azar and Grogan write. “He wants to hold providers and Big Pharma accountable to transparency and reasonable prices.”

Meanwhile, drugmakers have continued hiking prices, albeit a bit more slowly on average. List prices for branded drugs grew 3.3 percent in this year’s first quarter, compared with 6.3 percent in the first quarter of 2018, according to SSR Health pharmaceutical analysts. Bernstein analysts told Politico that drug prices jumped 10.5 percent over the past six months, less than over the same period last year but still four times the rate of inflation.

Trump has frequently referenced some encouraging data from the consumer price index, where the index for prescription drugs fell by 0.6 percent for the 12 months ending in December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The index also dropped in January, February, March and May — a string of monthly declines not seen since 1973, my Post fact-checking colleagues recently noted.

Yet these data are a far cry from the drastic price reductions Trump would love to tout on the campaign trail as he seeks reelection in 2020.

“By all accounts, drug prices are a fixation for Trump, who frequently sends advisers news clippings and summons them to the White House to rant about the issue,” Yasmeen, Josh and Laurie write. “The guy likes to make money, and he thinks they make too much money,” said one former senior administration official.

A senior administration official told my colleagues there was frustration at a lack of executive branch tools to lower drug prices and that some of Trump’s ideas were ambitious but unworkable.

“Disagreements over how to proceed have created a policy free-for-all as different advisers — and the president himself — pursue what appear to be ad hoc and sometimes dueling approaches,” they write. “Trump entertains proposals usually pushed by progressive Democrats one moment and free-market GOP ideas the next.”


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