Lawmakers enabled drug hikes

WASHINGTON (AP) – Lawmakers are venting outrage over high prescription drug costs, but lawmakers and presidents of both parties may have set the stage for the startling prices that have consumers on edge.

As the proverb says: Physician, heal thyself.

In the last 13 years, Congress passed major legislation that expanded taxpayer-financed coverage for prescription drugs but lacked explicit mechanisms for dealing with costs, instead relying mainly on market forces. Lawmakers look like unwitting enablers in the eyes of some experts.

Congress “inadvertently created a situation where price increases are much more rapid,” said economist Paul Ginsburg, a Medicare expert who directs the Brookings Institution health policy center.

Government-sponsored coverage injected more dollars into the market for medications, and new consumer protections curtailed some blunt instruments insurers used to control costs, such as annual and lifetime limits on the dollar value of coverage.

“The history we see over and over again is that when the government steps in as a guaranteed payer without regard to price, it will be taken advantage of,” said Dr. Peter Bach, director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Center for Health Policy and Outcomes.

Congressional indignation was on display recently as House members grilled Mylan CEO Heather Bresch about price increases for her company’s EpiPens, prefilled syringes that deliver a rescue drug for people suffering life-threatening allergic reactions. The company was accused of gouging patients, but there was little introspection about the role of government.

It’s not as though a secret signal went out from Capitol Hill that it was OK for Mylan to charge $608 for an EpiPen two-pack. Instead, government policies foster an environment that makes it easier to introduce new medications at a high price and to charge more for existing drugs.