Memphis Commercial Appeal: Alexander, Corker back 'orphan' drug bill

Posted on October 1, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Both Tennessee senators have become co-sponsors of a bill that would restore discounts for so-called "orphan" drugs purchased by children's hospitals, saving up to $1.5 million a year at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

The bill, introduced earlier this week by Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., would permit the Department of Health and Human Services to reinstate the discount for prescription drugs used to treat illnesses or conditions that afflict fewer than 200,000 people.

In a speech on the House floor, Brown explained that there are 347 types of "orphan" drugs, many used to treat sick children.

"St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is appreciative of both senators taking quick action to fix an unintentional error in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA)," William L. Greene, St. Jude's chief pharmaceutical officer, said Thursday.

"The error only affects certain freestanding children's hospitals, including St. Jude, that participate in a drug discount program created by Congress to assist safety-net hospitals, like children's hospitals, to access the 340B discount program for outpatient pharmaceuticals," he explained.

The program was designed to expand access to care to low-income populations, Greene added. "The legislation, which has bipartisan support in Congress, will enable St. Jude and approximately 25 other children's hospitals around the country to maintain discounts for a certain class of pharmaceuticals. Without the discounts, St. Jude would incur an additional $1.5 million a year in pharmaceutical expenses."

A group of Democratic senators last month asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a letter, to make what they termed a "technical correction" to the health reform bill that passed in March to continue the discount program. The House passed a bill in July making the correction.

"This bill would allow children's hospitals like St. Jude in Memphis to purchase drugs at a discount to treat the rarest children's diseases, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a statement Thursday. "For these hospitals, dollars saved means lives saved."

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the corrective action is just one of many likely to be necessary to "mitigate and minimize the unintended consequences and negative effects of the health care bill."