Culpeper Star-Exponent: Spanberger urges feds to penalize drug companies, crack down on illegal price hikes

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger is leading a campaign by six House members to fight prescription-drug hikes that hurt health-care providers and tens of millions of their patients, especially in rural communities.

Writing Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra about what they described as a rash of reckless decisions by pharmaceutical manufacturers, the legislators pressed the Biden administration to immediately act against companies that won’t comply with federal law.

Spanberger, a Democrat representing Central Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, called on HHS to protect rural providers’ access to discounted drugs they need to keep patients healthy and safe.

The lawmakers called for the Cabinet department to protect the 340B Drug Pricing Program, enacted by Congress in 1992 with bipartisan support.

Overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the program requires drug makers to discount their drugs to safety-net and rural health-care providers in exchange for having Medicaid cover them.

“More and more drug companies have begun to willfully deny 340B pricing to safety net providers who serve the most vulnerable patient populations in our communities,” Spanberger and her colleagues wrote Becerra. “HHS has the authority to take enforcement action that could deter these manufacturers … from engaging in this unlawful activity.”

Spanberger’s letter was also signed by Reps. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.), Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.).

The 340B Drug Pricing Program had established a record of reducing drug costs for Virginia patients who live in underserved communities, are poor or suffer from serious chronic illnesses.

But in recent years, some manufacturers have stopped honoring 340B discounts for drugs dispensed through pharmacies that contract with providers. That has dramatically hiked the price of those drugs for vulnerable patients and providers, Spanberger’s office said Tuesday.

Last year, after a bipartisan push led by Spanberger, HHS and the Health Resources and Services Administration sent warning letters to pharmaceutical manufacturers that refused to provide discounted prescription drugs.

But after the warnings, those companies made no effort to comply with their lawful obligations, Spanberger’s office said. And HHS didn’t follow up with enforcement action.

“This situation jeopardizes the integrity of the entire program and threatens affordable drug availability throughout rural America,” the congresswoman’s office said.

Congress, the previous administration, the Biden administration and thousands of 340B-covered safety-net providers across the nation have opposed the companies’ actions, Spanberger’s office said.

Health-care providers cannot wait much longer for HHS to act, the lawmakers wrote HHS.

Many 340B providers are struggling with severe financial losses and staffing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislators said, adding: “They cannot afford to pay higher upfront prices for the drugs their patients need.”

Virginia and U.S. health-care providers and patient-advocacy groups endorsed Spanberger’s effort to protect vulnerable people and hold drug companies accountable.

“Given drug manufacturers’ effort to limit 340B discounts to contract pharmacies, we appreciate Rep. Spanberger’s efforts to ensure safety-net providers like UVA Health continue to receive discounted pricing from drug manufacturers,” said Wendy Horton, a doctor of pharmacy who is CEO of the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. “The savings we see from reduced drug expenditures as a result of the 340B Drug Pricing Program are essential to supporting our mission to serve those who need us most.”

Paula Tomko, CEO of Central Virginia Health Services, said the 340B program has been “a lifeline” in helping their uninsured and underinsured patients get discounted medications for high blood pressure, diabetes or HIV/AIDS.

“Unfortunately, in recent years big pharmaceutical companies have unilaterally and unlawfully decided to increase the prices they charge for their medications to providers working in underserved communities,” Tomko said. “It is disappointing that big pharmaceutical companies—many of whom have reported excellent financial years—are dramatically increasing the prices on drugs needed by safety-net providers … in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Stacey Hughes, executive vice president of the American Hospital Association, assailed drug makers’ “pernicious tactics” and thanked Spanberger and her colleagues for tackling the issue.

The program’s discounted drugs help patients get childhood screenings, substance-use disorder treatment, childhood screenings and other vital care, said Beth O’Connor, executive director of the Virginia Rural Health Association.

“If we are to have any hope whatsoever of ending the HIV epidemic this decade, we must have a properly financed HIV safety net,” said Jesse Milan, president of AIDS United. “The 340B program is a vital pillar of that safety net.”

With pharmaceutical companies overcharging for their medications and shrinking HIV organizations’ resources, “The lives of people living with and vulnerable to HIV are on the line,” Milan said.

“We are incredibly grateful to these six members of Congress for leading the fight to protect the 340B safety net. We need them now more than ever as we continue to fight on the front lines against the pandemic,” said Shannon Stephenson, CEO of Cempa Community Care in Tennessee and president of the Ryan White Clinics.

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