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Forum fosters dialogue on cost of drugs

| Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

The Obama administration's top health officials said Friday that the nation needs greater clarity about the cost and effectiveness of prescription drugs as part of a strategy to make medicines more affordable without stunting the emergence of new pharmaceuticals.

A scattered system, in which drugs are priced differently depending on who is paying for them, “end(s) up obscuring” their true cost and, in turn, impacts which patients have access to them, said Andy Slavitt, who oversees Medicare, Medicaid and insurance exchanges in the Health and Human Services Department. “We must increase the transparency of the information available about drug pricing and value,” he said.

Slavitt's remarks were part of a broad, day-long forum that HHS sponsored to discuss rising drug prices, which have become a dominant policy issue, raising the ire of consumers, sparking fights between sectors of the health care industry and spilling into Congress and presidential campaigns. Recent surveys have shown that making drugs more affordable is the public's leading health policy concern.

The event, at HHS headquarters in Washington, assembled hundreds of researchers, consumer advocates, company executives and pharmacy benefit managers, as well as representatives of the insurance industry and state and federal officials.

Before it began, federal health officials sought to calibrate expectations, saying that the rare gathering would not yield any hint of new administration plans to make prescription drugs more affordable. Instead, the session was intended to foster conversation among important groups that are increasingly rivals over the issue.

Panels at the forum were designed to begin establishing a common base of knowledge about drug spending, development and innovative approaches that are being tried to control costs and improve access.

A central theme was the goal of a system in which the government and private insurers would pay for drugs based on research evidence of their effectiveness.

“For the sake of patients, our health care system and our economy, we must simultaneously support innovation, access and affordability,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said in opening the discussion.

Burwell touted steps the administration has taken. She contended that the 2010 Affordable Care Act has promoted access to prescription drugs by providing health coverage to 17.5 million American through the law's insurance exchanges and the expansion of Medicaid in about half the states.

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