Trump admin keeping drug price info under wraps

Washington, UNITED STATES: The US Department of Health and Human Services building is shown in Washington, DC, 21 July 2007. The department, which began operations in 1980, has more than 67,000 employees. AFP PHOTO/Saul LOEB

(CNN)The Department of Health and Human Services has not updated the databases that show the public how much money the government is paying for drugs, hospitals and physicians.

The database has been instrumental for researchers, journalists and non-profit groups who keep tabs on trends in drug prices and abuses by physicians, and was considered to be a step toward transparency and accountability for an industry that historically keeps its prices in the dark.
Although President Donald Trump has repeatedly promised "one of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs" because drug companies are "getting away with murder," critics say the dashboard's dormancy helps the drug industry avoid new scrutiny.
"Drug corporations are thrilled to have this tool be out of date," said Ben Wakana, executive director of Patients for Affordable Drugs, and a former HHS spokesman under President Barack Obama. "If this administration is serious about transparency and serious about holding drug companies accountable, they should update this tool tomorrow."
    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), which maintains the website, did not comment on the record for this story. A CMS spokesperson who asked not to be identified told CNN that the department is making "enhancements" to the database, but could not say when those began or when the data would be posted.
    Niall Brennan, the former chief data officer for CMS who created the dashboard, said he created the program to make it very easy for the subsequent release of data in following years.
    "The code is written," said Brennan, who is now the president and executive director of the Health Care Cost Institute. "This would be one of the first examples of them not updating one of the existing data sources."
    The pharmaceutical industry opposed the database when it was created, arguing that it isn't a fair representation of drug prices, since the government isn't allowed to negotiate the cost of drug prices.
    The database shows gross prices, not including rebates, meaning the costs reflected in the database may be higher than what someone with insurance would pay for their medicine. That's the main reason the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) says posting the data is a "misleading" representation.
    When contacted for comment Monday, PhRMA sent CNN a statement from 2016, saying in part, "The dashboard focuses on a small subset of medicines and ignores the substantial market forces at work to hold down costs."
    "The reason this tool is fair is because if you are a person who is uninsured, you are paying the list price in that database," Wakana said. "So to argue that some pay lower prices is completely unjustified. Hundreds of thousands of people each year are draining bank accounts to pay the prices in that database."
    Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under Obama, who started the database, said the purpose of posting this data was to "create a bit of shame for those who increase prices continuously without doing anything to improve the drug."
    "They (drug companies) don't want taxpayers and Americans to know how they price their drugs because they don't price them fairly. In order to lower drug prices, people need this information," Slavitt said, later adding, "I've heard transparency and cost reduction out of this administration a number of times, and this is probably the best example of this. So I don't know a good explanation of why this information isn't being kept up."
    Under the Obama administration, the CMS dashboard was typically updated in November for the previous calendar year, but no new information has posted since Trump took office. Information going back to 2010 remains on the website.
    Trump on Monday reiterated his desire to lower drug prices, in part blaming the drug lobby in a speech.
    "If you compare our drug prices to other countries in the world, in some cases, it's many times higher for the exact same pill, or whatever it is, in the exact same package, made in the exact same plant. And we're going to change that," he said in a speech in New Hampshire.
    "They're quite valuable files," said Jack Hoadley, a health policy analyst and political scientist at Georgetown University who testified recently before the Senate using the database, but had to use slightly outdated information since it hasn't been updated. He said he uses it "to just get a sense of what are the drugs that are getting the most spending, the highest price increases. I've seen some really good work, on exactly that point, flagging drugs that are showing a lot of price increase over the past few years, and that leads you to look deeper and ask what's going on."
    Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar -- a former Eli Lilly & Co executive -- who came to the administration with many drug industry ties -- gave a speech to the Federation of American Hospitals "encouraging transparency from providers and payers" and saying "providers and insurers have to become more transparent about their pricing."
    In November, when Trump announced Azar as his nominee to lead HHS, he continued to emphasize his focus on drug prices, tweeting..., "he will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices."
    He even highlighted it in his State of the Union address.
    "Fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of our top priorities," Trump said. "Prices will come down."