Republicans’ Pass Prescription for High Drug Costs (and Congressional Dysfunction)

The cost of health care is exploding, threatening to do lasting damage to both the nation’s finances and the economy writ large. One of the biggest combustibles is the dramatic increase in the cost of new drug therapies. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that drug costs in the U.S. will soar from $272 billion in 2013 to $406 billion at the end of the decade. A quick look at the statistics and it’s easy to see why.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly half of Americans take at least one drug and more than 20 percent take more than three prescriptions. At the same time, a report from the Chicago Tribune found that the average price for the 50 most popular generic drugs (which are supposed to be the cheapest option) increased 373 percent. Brand name drugs and specialty drugs are also increasing far faster than inflation. A new drug named Sovaldi, which has been heralded as a cure for hepatitis C and derided for it’s insane $1,100-per-pill pricetag, seems to typify the future of the drug market, which promises stunning advances for jaw dropping prices.

One of the biggest reasons that drug companies charge those rates, outside of the simple “because they can,” is that the process for approving drugs is expensive. Like, really expensive. A recent report from the Tufts Institute found that the cost of getting a new drug to market has grown from around $800 million in 2003 to over $2.6 billion in 2013. But even that may be low. Forbes’ journalists Matthew Harper and Scott DeCarlo divided pharmaceutical companies’ research and development budgets by the number of drug approvals they achieved and found a range of $12 billion (Astrazeneca) to $3.7 billion (Amgen).

Fortunately, House Republicans have been hard at work on some ideas to get accelerate the lifecycle–from discovery to development to delivery–of the drug creation process. Speaker John Boehner writes for POLITICO:

Medical technology has undergone a vast transformation in recent decades, but it is being throttled by an outdated bureaucracy that hasn’t kept pace. Today, it takes 15 years for a new drug to move from the lab to the local pharmacy. The 21st Century Cures initiative aims to shorten that time, in part, by modernizing clinical trials. It does so by reducing the administrative burden of setting up new trials and making it easier to recruit the right candidates utilizing patient-generated medical registries. Researchers are able to tailor trials to specific patient groups and zero in on the treatments that are working for those with certain characteristics, and remove those who are not responding to treatment. And, it relies on patient feedback throughout the process so researchers can better gauge the impact of new treatments and improve their development.

And that’s just one of the many things the “21st Century Cures,” bill, written by Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Diana Degette (D-CO), promises to accomplish. The bill also invests heavily in medical research by providing an additional $9.3 billion in mandatory funding to the National Institutes of Health over the next five years which will be used to work towards breakthroughs in biomedical research. It also encourages greater collaboration among researchers, streamlines burdensome regulations, allows for better incorporation of patient experience data, removes regulatory uncertainty for the development of new medical apps, and provides new incentives for the development of drugs for rare diseases.

This is incredible progress, made even more astounding by the fact that it was done on a bipartisan basis, something you’re beginning to see a lot more of in a Republican-led Congress. As Charlie Cook writes for National Journal:

While these are, in some cases, baby steps, they are important ones because what has been lacking in recent years is trust—both between key members in each party and, occasionally, within factions of each party. Trust and progress on small things can lead to trust and progress on medium-sized and eventually big things. It also creates a sense of momentum and semblance of regular order that encourages efforts to do more. The late and legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn once said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” It takes people with an honest desire to build, as well as leadership—particularly among committee and subcommittee chairs and ranking members—to craft and move legislation, marginalizing those who would rather kick things down.

Bipartisan progress on an question that everyone agrees needs solving? And it reduces the deficit to boot? Maybe we’ll be able to fix our broken health care system after all.