WASHINGTON — President Trump used the swearing-in of the new secretary of health and human services as an opportunity to decry high prescription drug prices and pledge to bring them down — an intention he has long trumpeted but on which he has yet to follow through.

“He’s going to get those prescription drug prices way down,” Trump said as he introduced Alex Azar at the White House Monday.

“Prescription drug prices is going to be one of the big things,” Trump said of Azar’s new job. “Whenever I speak to Alex, I speak to him about that, I think, prior to anything else. And I know you can do it. You know the system. And you can do it because it’s wrong.”


Trump also pointed to the disparity in the cost of prescription drugs in America compared to other countries, saying that “the exact same pill in an identical box from the same factory costs us much more than, many times more than it does in other countries. And nobody knows that process better than Alex. And we’re going to get it done because it’s very unfair for our country.”

The remarks echoed back to statements Trump made almost exactly a year ago, when he met with pharmaceutical industry executives and said that “we have to get prices down for a lot of reasons.” Just a few weeks before, he said that the industry is “getting away with murder.”

And yet, in Trump’s first year in office, little has been accomplished. Congress is at a standstill as industry players point fingers at one another. A little-known White House group is pondering the situation behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, prescription drug costs have continued to rise — and analysts expect them to keep rising.

Azar, who fills the position vacated by Tom Price’s resignation in September, has likewise stated that addressing prescription drug prices is a central part of his agenda for HHS. In confirmation hearings, Azar said he wanted to encourage development of generic drugs and look at ways to press pharmaceutical companies to reduce the list price of the drugs.

Azar comes to the government from the drug company Eli Lilly — which itself is the target of scrutiny for raising the price of insulin.

At his swearing-in, Azar confirmed his intention to bring down prescription drug prices, naming that issue along with the opioid crisis, which President Trump also addressed, as two topics he would be focusing on.

“We have to tackle the scourge of the opiate crisis and we will bring down prescription drug prices,” Azar said.

Exactly what Azar and Trump will do remains unclear.

“We have to get the prices for prescription drugs way down and unravel the tangled web of special interests that are driving prices up for medicine and [are] really hurting patients,” Trump said on Monday.

Such a reference to special interests may be a shot aimed at the other companies in the pharmaceutical supply chain, such as insurers and pharmacy benefit managers, who help move drugs from a manufacturer to a patient. As Washington has increasingly scrutinized drug prices, the pharmaceutical lobby has attempted to shift public attention toward such other middlemen.

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    • Julie, the Amendments that followed the thalidomide tragedy created one in the U.S. In the early 1980s, we knew that the B vitamin folic acid could prevent birth defects in babies. The Amendments resulted in the FDA stopping folic acid manufacturers from advertising this to consumers for over a decade. As a result, about 10,000 American babies were needlessly born deformed and many more were aborted. Overall, the Amendments have cost about half of the Americans who have died since then to lose about a decade of their lives. Bad law is just as deadly as bad drugs.

  • The only way to lower prescription drug prices without slashing innovation is to stop the exponential increase in regulatory costs.

    • Prescription drug expenses are only a bit above 10% of overall healthcare expenses. Good initiative to bring drug price down, but its a small piece of the pie. People won’t see material impact on their healthcare expenses (including premiums) if problem is not tackled more comprehensively. This effort feels like a PR gig and shifting attention to scape goats, while not truly addressing the problem of growing healthcare expenses.

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