breaking news

Turnout soars on the first day of early voting in Georgia

HHS Secretary Azar avoids being drawn into fight over preexisting conditions

The HHS secretary contends drug manufacturers face hurdles in trying to lower prescription prices.


Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers Tuesday that he wants to preserve access to affordable insurance for Americans with preexisting medical conditions, but he declined to disclose his view of an administration move that could undercut such consumer protections. 

Calling it "a constitutional position . . . not a policy position," Azar sidestepped grilling on whether he agreed with a legal brief filed last week by Justice Department attorneys stating they would not defend the Affordable Care Act in a federal lawsuit by Texas and 19 other Republican-led states. 

During a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that was mainly about the president's blueprint to address drug prices, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., told Azar that Justice's legal position is "like some kind of a sick joke." The administration argues that the ACA's individual mandate, requiring most people to carry health insurance, will become unconstitutional next year — and, with it, the law's insurance protections for consumers. 

"Will you encourage the Trump administration to change its position?" Hassan challenged Azar, a lawyer and former HHS general counsel. 

He replied that "we do believe in finding solutions on the matter of preexisting conditions and the matter of affordability, regardless of the litigation." 

The committee's Republicans were silent on the question, even though some GOP lawmakers have said they were bewildered by the Justice Department's surprise stance. The move has become a lightning rod ahead of the November midterm elections. 

Democrats also pressed Azar on a statement by President Donald Trump last month that drug companies would, within two weeks, "announce voluntary, massive drops in prices." 

"That would be tomorrow," noted Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., challenging Azar to name companies that have carried out Trump's promise. 

The secretary said several drug manufacturers have told federal officials that "they want to execute substantial price reductions" but are "encountering hurdles." Pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), he said, are threatening to drop those companies' drugs from formularies — that is, lists of medicines covered by an insurer — because lower list prices would translate into smaller profits for the PBMs. "I find that unconscionable," he said. 

Azar's remarks were consistent with the administration's portrayal of "middle men," not the pharmaceutical industry itself, as the root of the nation's high drug prices. He reiterated that direct government negotiation of drug prices in the vast Medicare program — a longtime Democratic goal that Trump embraced during his campaign — would be ineffective. 

Azar noted that the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday issued final guidelines designed to make it easier for pharmaceutical companies and insurers to negotiate prices based on a drug's value and effectiveness. 

The rules, first drafted during the final days of the Obama administration, define permissible "medical communications" between the manufacturers and payers such as health plans and hospitals. They fit within a priority of Azar's to shift health-care payments from methods based on the amount of treatment provided to ones based on services' quality and effectiveness. 

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the guidance clarifies how drug companies may communicate information about patient outcomes that are important to purchasers, but are not expressly included in a product's approved labeling. 

For example, Gottlieb said in an interview, drug companies might have information on how a particular drug helps to reduce the length of hospital stays or whether patients need to be readmitted to a hospital. While such data are not part of the approved labels, they "may be of interest to health plans and easy to measure." 

His agency wants to encourage competitive contracting based on such measures and "not get in the way" of such negotiations, he added. 

Drug companies develop information on the economic value of their medications. But they have indicated to the FDA that they feel inhibited in sharing certain economic data with payers because of legal concerns. 

A spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the main trade group for the drug industry, praised the new guidelines. They address "one barrier that has restricted how much information biopharmaceutical companies can share with insurance companies about the potential value of a medicine," the spokesman said.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Nation & World

Video shows Florida city official kill fleeing shoplifting suspect
Video shows Florida city official kill fleeing shoplifting suspect

Video released in the fatal shooting of an alleged shoplifter at a Florida military surplus store shows Lakeland city Commissioner Michael Dunn fire the shot that killed the man.  Dunn, a vocal supporter of gun rights, is a co-owner of Vets Army Navy Surplus, located at 819 N. Florida Ave. in Lakeland. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Dunn...
Mom, 4 children dead in apparent murder-suicide, deputies say
Mom, 4 children dead in apparent murder-suicide, deputies say

A Tennessee mother and four children were found dead Monday in what investigators believe was a murder-suicide. According to the Columbia Daily Herald, a family member arrived at the Maury County home after 6 p.m. Monday and discovered the bodies, authorities said.  The mother, whose name has not been released, appeared to have died from "...
Sheriff: Baby stabbed, placed in oven, one person charged
Sheriff: Baby stabbed, placed in oven, one person charged

One person in Mississippi is in custody after the Bolivar County sheriff said that a baby was stabbed, WTVA reported. The baby was then placed in an oven at the home and baked, the sheriff told WTVA. >> Read more trending news  The person, whose name and relationship to the baby has not been released, is in the Bolivar County...
'Kill Trump' tweet leads to Secret Service probe of school employee
'Kill Trump' tweet leads to Secret Service probe of school employee

A Massachusetts school employee is under investigation by the Secret Service for allegedly threatening President Donald Trump on social media. The employee, a Fitchburg Public Schools paraprofessional who works with special-needs students, has also been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of this investigation. Her husband, a principal...
Man injured after accidentally springing his own booby trap
Man injured after accidentally springing his own booby trap

A man in Cleveland County, North Carolina, was seriously hurt after he was shot by his own booby trap. >> Read more trending news  Edwin Smith booby-trapped a back door with a shotgun and posted an abrasive warning sign for intruders. He opened the door at about 11:30 a.m. to feed squirrels. The trap was sprung and he was struck in the arm...
More Stories