December 9, 2015 / 8:30 PM / 2 years ago

Medical professionals to discuss toll of Valeant, Turing drug price spikes

WASHINGTON, Dec 9 (Reuters) - A pediatric doctor in Alabama had to scramble to find a less expensive supply of a lifesaving drug to treat an infant who was suffering from a parasitic infection.

In Utah, a hospital has been forced to change the way it stocks a drug critical to treating patients with heart conditions after the cost sky-rocketed from $440 to $2,700 a vial.

These are just two of the stories that a U.S. Senate panel will hear on Wednesday at a hearing that will explore why certain off-patent prescriptions made by companies like Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Turing Pharmaceuticals have shot up after they acquired the rights to sell the drugs.

The U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging announced last month it was launching an investigation into drug pricing and the role that mergers and acquisitions may be playing in price hikes.

The committee is reviewing price increases for Valeant’s two heart drugs Isuprel and Nitropress, as well as Turing’s price increase on Daraprim, a drug used to treat a disease called toxoplasmosis that affects AIDS patients and pregnant women.

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said in prepared remarks that she wants to make sure companies are not taking advantage of the system by seeking “deep profits while contributing little or nothing to advances in medical treatment.”

Drug pricing has come under wider scrutiny in the last few months, not only from U.S. lawmakers, but also from U.S. prosecutors and Democratic presidential candidates.

Valeant is facing probes from U.S. prosecutors over prices, distribution and prescription assistance programs, while Turing is under investigation by the New York state attorney general for antitrust concerns. The increased scrutiny over high U.S. drug prices has also taken a toll on the industry’s stocks.

Wednesday is the first in what is expected to be a series of hearings on drug price spikes.

The committee asked both companies to turn over documents for the investigation by Dec. 2, and the chief executives may be called to testify at a future date.

Congress is nearing the end of its session for the year, and will resume holding hearings on the subject in 2016.

Valeant said it was cooperating with the committee, including providing requested documents.

“Valeant markets more than 200 prescription drugs ... so broad conclusions about the company’s pricing cannot be drawn from any one drug or set of drugs,” spokeswoman Laurie Little said in an emailed statement.

Turing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Wednesday’s hearing was to feature medical professionals who would testify about the impact of drug price increases.

Erin Fox, a director at the University of Utah Health Care, said in prepared remarks that the hospital is struggling to cope with Valeant’s drug price increases.

“If we continued to purchase the same amount of each drug, it would cost our organization just over $1.6 million more for isoproterenol and approximately $290,000 more for nitroprusside compared to what we paid the previous year,” Fox said. Both drugs are used to treat heart conditions.

David Kimberlin, a pediatric infectious disease doctor in Alabama, will also discuss the challenges he has faced after the cost of Daraprim rose from $13.50 a pill to $750 and how it is now only available at Walgreens specialty pharmacies.

“Our pharmacy cannot acquire the drug from the Walgreens Specialty Pharmacy due to restrictions in the sale of medications from one pharmacy to another,” he said. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; additional reporting by Bill Berkrot in New York)

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