The House Oversight Committee will begin a series of hearings on the drug industry’s pricing practices with testimony from patient advocates and researchers.

The committee has yet to announce the specifics of who will testify at this first hearing, set for Jan. 29, and multiple experts in the field and patient advocacy groups say they have yet to be contacted by the committee.

Government watchdogs said the actions Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have taken so far in this investigation show he’s serious about conducting a comprehensive investigation, not one driven by scandal.

“The Committee will hold its first of several hearings in the coming weeks to hear from experts, as well as patients affected by rising drug prices,” Cummings said in a statement. Aryele Bradford, the committee’s deputy press secretary, confirmed the first hearing would include testimony from patients and drug pricing researchers.

“Right now we’re just trying to find out why the prices are so high, what they do with the profits, and how we can lower the prices,” Cummings said in an interview. “We’re in the research phase, and we’ll see what we come up with.”

The Oversight Committee sent letters to 12 pharmaceutical companies about their pricing practices for specific drugs Jan. 14.

The committee still lacks a full membership, with only its chairman, Cummings, and ranking Republican, Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), seated.

Legislative Goal

“The role of oversight in building a legislative case for reform” has been lost over the last eight years, Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said in an interview. The ultimate goal for this type of oversight is to propose legislation and policy changes rather than stage a spectacle, he said.

It’s notable that Cummings “doesn’t want to presuppose a clear and detailed understanding of the problems that they’re going to attempt to address,” Justin Rood, director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the Project on Government Oversight, said in an interview.

“The goal that the chairman will have is to try to educate Congress and the American people about the pricing practices of pharma and bringing in witnesses who are knowledgeable about how that market is broken,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said in an interview.

Cummings “will be focused on trying to get helpful information that will inform legislation that we pass,” Welch said.

Executives Not First

Industry lobbyists and consultants were somewhat surprised Cummings doesn’t plan to have pharmaceutical company executives testify at the first hearing, and Cummings was unsure about whether or not he wants to have pharmaceutical executives testify before the committee at all.

“We’ve had drug companies come before our committee before, and when they come it’s almost like a rope-a-dope,” Cummings said.

The pharmaceutical executives will “let you punch on them and beat them up and then go right back and do the same thing. They raise the prices. Rarely do the prices go down,” he said.

This investigation will be daunting because of the lobbying power of pharmaceutical companies, Evers said, but there is “every reason to expect (Cummings is) in this investigation for the long haul.”

Long Haul

“Folks can settle in” for this investigation, Rood said. Cummings and his staff “don’t give up and don’t go away until they’ve gotten what they’re looking for,” he added.

Evers said he expects this will be an evidence-driven investigation. This is a “very serious way of presenting oversight,” focused on substance, not scandal, he added.

This first hearing also shows that Cummings is not just going to be focused on oversight of the Trump administration, Rood said.

It is a reminder that Congress can demand information from the private sector, something we will likely see more of, Evers said.

Patient Input

It would be surprising if patient groups for specific diseases talk about the drug pricing investigation, a health-care lobbyist said in an interview. Certain drugs can be very helpful for their patients, and they don’t want to get mixed up in the debate, the lobbyist said.

It would be more likely for patient groups that advocate for lowering all drug prices, such as the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing or Patients for Affordable Drugs, to get involved in the investigation.

—With assistance from Alex Ruoff