Zurik: HHS Secretary says ‘revolutionary’ changes to come for drug prices

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visits Louisiana pharmacists following major industry changes

Zurik: HHS Secretary says ‘revolutionary’ changes to come for drug prices

METAIRIE, LA (WVUE) - A law signed by President Donald Trump as a result of the ‘Medical Waste’ Investigation is the start of ‘revolutionary’ changes to drug prices in the United States, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Louisiana pharmacists Wednesday.

Azar was in New Orleans to speak to the Association for Accessible Medicines and to meet with Louisiana pharmacists about the progress that has been made following the extensive ‘Medical Waste’ Investigation by FOX 8 News.

Much of the years-long investigation focused on pharmacy benefit managers - or PBM’s - middlemen often in control of how much you pay for prescription medications.

“The biggest PBM is bigger than Walt Disney, McDonalds and Eli Lilly combined,” Doug Hoey, with the National Community Pharmacists Association, said during our investigation. “Those three iconic companies together are not as big as the biggest PBM, Express Scripts - yet most consumers have no idea what Express Scripts is.”

The PBM’s set up a system where they get rebates - or kickbacks - from drug companies. That money they collect, helps pad the PBM’s books.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar speaks to Louisiana pharmacists during a visit to a Metairie pharmacy on Feb. 6.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar speaks to Louisiana pharmacists during a visit to a Metairie pharmacy on Feb. 6.

“Right now drug companies are giving kickbacks or rebates to middlemen who decide which drugs you get to take. But when you show up here at a pharmacy, you don’t get a benefit of that kickback or that rebate as a discount, it stays there with the middleman,” Azar said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with Chief Investigative Reporter Lee Zurik. “As of January 1, you would get that discount when you show up at the pharmacy.”

Azar told the pharmacists the savings for their customers could be significant. He said the average could be twenty to thirty percent in savings, but in some cases the discount could be much larger.

The directive from the President only applies to the Medicare Part D Program. But Secretary Azar thinks the savings will trickle down to other private plans too.

“We don’t directly regulate the private plans but we think the changes we’re making in Medicare will cause the private plans to change their practices also," Azar said. "We’d ask Congress to take a look at this -- Congress could make that happen across the plans immediately.”

Among the pharmacists at Wednesday’s meeting of pharmacists was Hammond pharmacist Ricky Mannino. He’s the pharmacist who initially tipped us and started the Medical Waste investigative series, resulting in a law signed by the President. The pharmacists believe the HHS Secretary received their message about help for prescription drugs.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar meets Ricky Mannino, the Hammond pharmacist who spoke with FOX 8 for the 'Medical Waste' investigation.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar meets Ricky Mannino, the Hammond pharmacist who spoke with FOX 8 for the 'Medical Waste' investigation.

“Transparency is key. We have been saying that all along,” Randal Johnson, president and CEO of the Louisiana Independent Pharmacies Association, said. "Let’s not be able to call a dog a cat. Let’s not use a term that you can change the definition on with a whim. We need transparency to take out these price concessions and we need to get down to where a patient is able to afford to maintain their health by going to their pharmacy and getting the lowest cost drug.

At Tuesday night’s the State of the Union Address, President Trump also had a message for drug companies.

“It is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs,” he said.

The FOX 8 Medical Waste investigative series found drugs priced far more in the U.S. compared to other countries. Our investigation found a diabetes drug that cost $106 in the United States and $2 in Canada. We also found an antibiotic for $143 in the U.S. and $33 in Canada.

“Will there be a time where you can buy a drug in America and Canada or somewhere else and they will be relatively the same price?" Zurik asked Secretary Azar.

“Well, that’s our goal is to end this foreign free-riding,” Azar said. “The President [Tuesday night] gave a call to action to Congress -- end foreign free-riding off of American research and development.

The American patient should not have to pay the cost of development for the rest of the world.
Alex Azar, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary

Last year, Congress passed a bill which President Trump signed that prevented Pharmacist gag clauses. The bill was sponsored by Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy after he watched the Medical Waste stories with Hammond pharmacist, Ricky Mannino.

The Trump Administration said the steps highlighted to the pharmacists Thursday in New Orleans are the next steps to lower the cost of healthcare for consumers, whose lives may be in danger because of drug companies pricing them out of the market.

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