Tom Price (Photo: Diego Radzinschi/ALM)

(Bloomberg) — Tackling the high price of prescriptions drugs in the U.S. is still “an absolute priority,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told senators Thursday.

Pharmaceutical companies have been the target of President Donald Trump ever since he said they were “getting away with murder” in January. While he has threatened on several occasions to force them to bid for government business as a way to reduce prices, he hasn’t translated the threat into action. For instance, he didn’t include any drug pricing proposals in his recent budget request, a document usually seen as a list of priorities for an administration.

(Related: Republicans Feel the Heat at Home on Health Care)

Price told the Senate Finance Committee that Trump has asked his department for recommendations on policies that would reduce the costs of medications. The HHS secretary said he charged the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the Health Resources and Services Administration with coming up with proposals. Price also has been meeting with pharmacists, care providers and pharmacy-benefit managers in recent weeks to discuss ideas for making drugs more affordable.

“It’s an absolute priority and we look forward to working with anyone who’s interested in holding down or bringing down drug prices for the American people,” Price said.

One way to lower costs is to enable more generics — which are cheaper versions of a brand name — to come to the market. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Monday that the agency is looking at how to push applications to the front of the line in cases where there are fewer than three competing generic manufacturers. The FDA is seeking to eliminate within a year the backlog of 2,640 generic-drug applications, Gottlieb said.

Health Insurers

At the Senate hearing, Price declined to answer a separate question about a critical issue for health insurers: whether the administration will fund cost-sharing reduction payments made to insurers to help reduce low-income Americans’ health expenses. He cited citing an ongoing lawsuit over the payments.

The payments, made by the government on a monthly basis near the end of each month, were instituted under the Affordable Care Act, a law that the president calls a failure and wants repealed. The Trump administration hasn’t committed to funding the subsidies beyond last month’s allotment.

Without the payments, insurers have threatened to drop out of the Affordable Care Act public exchange system or substantially raise premiums, and customers could face thousands of dollars in unexpected costs. Some states and insurers have blamed the lack of certainty in Washington among the reasons for the rate hikes and market exits.

The latest one was Washington state on Thursday. Six insurers filed to sell plans on the ACA individual market for 2018, leaving two counties with no coverage, which could mean more than 3,300 people without an Obamacare option next year.

‘Sabotaging the Process’

“The proposed drop in insurers and coverage areas clearly indicates to me that the uncertainty the Trump administration and the GOP-controlled Congress has sowed for months is sabotaging the progress we’ve made,” Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said in a statement.

Earlier in the week, Anthem Inc. said it would drop out of the individual market in Ohio, possibly leaving 13,000 people in 20 counties without option under the program next year.

“Nobody is interested in the system dying,” Price said at his hearing. “Nobody is interested in sabotaging the system.”

— Read Actuary Sizes Up 2018 Individual Health Picture on ThinkAdvisor. 

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