2nd major inhaler maker agrees to cap out-of-pocket costs amid Senate investigation

NOW: 2nd major inhaler maker agrees to cap out-of-pocket costs amid Senate investigation

WAUWATOSA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A second major producer of inhalers announced Monday it will cap out-of-pocket costs at $35. AstraZeneca joined Boehringer Ingelheim in pledging to limit patients' costs to $35, effective June 1.

The announcement comes two months after a group of four U.S. senators launched an investigation into the four major producers of inhalers. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is looking into why inhalers cost so much more in the U.S.

One of those lawmakers is Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who hosted a roundtable event on the cost of inhalers Monday at the Children's Wisconsin Corporate Center.

According to materials provided by Baldwin's office, AstraZeneca charges $645 for one of its inhalers in the U.S., but in England, that same product costs $49. 

Baldwin said the group of senators hope the investigation will pressure the other two major inhaler producers, GlaxoSmithKline and Teva, to also adopt new caps on out-of-pocket costs.

"It really shows that transparency, shining that light, can bring costs down," Baldwin said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 500,000 Wisconsinites are living with asthma. Michael Laiosa, an associate professor and faculty chair at the UW-Milwaukee Zilber College of Public Health, noted for every 10,000 Wisconsinites with asthma, 28 make an emergency hospital visit each year.

In Milwaukee, that rate was twice as high, leading to the city being referred to as an 'asthma capital.'

Dr. Tyler Andryscyk, a pharmacist at Milwaukee-based Hayat Pharmacy, said during the roundtable some of the pricing mechanisms around inhalers are "criminal." 

"We definitely encounter patients on a weekly basis that have issues with affording their inhalers," Andryscyk said after the event. "A lot of times, that will lead to patients rationing their supply."

Andryscyk said while he was encouraged by AstraZeneca's announcement, he still questioned if that would lead to relief for patients. He said one concern is whether Pharmacy Benefit Managers, or PBMs, would keep steering patients toward the most expensive products.

Andryscyk said one current source of frustration is PBMs denying patients access to the generic inhaler AstraZeneca produces. Instead, he said patients' formularies -- the list of medicines a pharmacist can dispense -- are limited to the brand-name version, Symbicort, which Andryscyk said costs at least five times as much as the generic inhaler.

"Patients are either forced to pay an arm and a leg for a medication or find something that doesn't work as well," he said. "And unfortunately, they're often forced into those lower-cost, [less]-effective options."

In addition to Baldwin, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Ed Markey (D-MA) are leading the investigation into inhaler costs.

AstraZeneca was already under pressure. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent the company a letter last November challenging the patent status of Symbicort. The FTC maintained Symbicort's patent listing may be violating federal antitrust laws, and in the process, blocking other generic drug makers from accessing the market. 

Eric Hovde, the Republican challenging Baldwin for her Senate seat, said in a statement he also felt prescription drugs have become far too expensive.

“As someone who has lived with multiple sclerosis for the last 30 years, I know personally about how out of control prescription drug prices have gotten," Hovde said. "The status quo is unacceptable. We need to reduce costs for patients.”

Hovde was not made available for an interview Monday.

When asked what the federal government could do to address costs moving forward, Baldwin said she supported inhalers becoming one of the next drugs whose price Medicare can negotiate.

Currently, Medicare can negotiate the prices of 10 drugs. That number will increase to 15 in 2027.

Baldwin added public pressure on the pharmaceutical giants seemed to be working as a short-term solution. 

"I have to say that the fact that we launched an investigation, and we've seen two companies now voluntarily lower the out-of-pocket price for inhalers, that's heartening," she said. "But it's not enough."

Baldwin on not attending Biden visit

When President Joe Biden visited Milwaukee last Wednesday, Baldwin was noticeably not present with president. When asked why she didn't leave Washington, D.C., Baldwin said she had already committed to staying on Capitol Hill as the Senate had votes scheduled throughout the week.

"We were voting in the Senate," Baldwin said. "And we were in session, and I didn't want to not fulfill my duties as a senator."

While the Senate did not have any roll call votes on Wednesday, it did last Tuesday and Thursday. When asked for a clarification, a spokesperson for the senator said Baldwin had already made plans to remain in Washington throughout the week with the Senate scheduled to be in session.

Baldwin supports "immediate" ceasefire in Gaza

On Monday, Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in more than a month. 

The leaders discussed a possible six-week ceasefire, which would include the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has defended its response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed 1,200 people and saw more than 200 others kidnapped. The Hamas-run Ministry of Health has said more than 31,000 people in Gaza have died since Israel began its counterattack. 

Baldwin said Monday she supported an "immediate" stop to the fighting.

"We certainly need an immediate ceasefire. It has to be agreed upon by Israel and Hamas," Baldwin said. "We need it desperately, so that hostages can be released and so that humanitarian aid can come in to deal with a very, very desperate situation."

Baldwin, who has been pressured in recent months by left-wing, pro-Palestine demonstrators, was then asked if she supported a permanent or temporary ceasefire.

"I would hope that the parties could agree to a permanent ceasefire," she said. "They both have to agree."

"Leaning in favor" of TikTok bill

One major piece of legislation heading to the Senate could possibly ban the popular social media app, TikTok.

The app is owned by ByteDance, which has direct ties to the Chinese Community Party, which is China's ruling party. The House bill, which Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher co-authored, would require ByteDance to sell TikTok or risk having the app banned in the U.S.

The House passed the bill 352-65 in a bipartisan vote last week. Baldwin said on Monday she was leaning toward supporting the bill but was not yet committed to a position.

"I will be looking closely at the legislation coming over from the House," she said. "I would say the approach it takes is interesting, and I'm still studying it."

"I'm leaning in favor of it, but I'm not there yet. I'm still studying."

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