On February 26, 2019, top pharmaceutical executives gathered at a Senate hearing on the extreme drug prices. The hearing focused on how high list prices affect the most vulnerable: individuals without coverage. In the end, those who can least afford drugs are paying the highest price. Instead of accepting blame, executives pointed fingers at the government, saying that even if pharmaceutical companies lower their list price, Medicare and Medicaid do not lower their patient cost sharing. Executives also pointed to research and development costs as a primary driver for high costs. Blame was also put on pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) who are third-party administrators who negotiate, handle, and administers drug benefit components of a health plan. Because of this, the Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley proposed another hearing for PBMs.
Beyond the major reasons for maintaining high drug prices, heated conversations around opioids also arose. Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire targeted Johns & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals representative, Jennifer Taubert. Senator Hassan brought up pseudo-addictions, which is an idea promoted by opioid manufacturers that suggests that if patients show signs of addition, it might be because they might not be receiving enough opioids. Janssen allegedly promoted this idea, but the Janssen representative pushed this aside, saying that opioids represent only 1% of the company’s products. Pushing this statistics aside made it feel like Taubert was dismissing the whole epidemic which heightened tensions in the room.
Overall, while the hearing was around drug pricing, side conversation about the opioid epidemic exposed the role of executives and drug companies in this epidemic. Nevertheless, the opioid epidemic is a problem of health across the continuum. It will be interesting to look forward and see how other public hearings and conversations can affect this epidemic.