State Sen. James Skoufis plans to make prescription drug costs an opening topic for the Senate investigations committee he now leads, examining the role of industry middlemen known as pharmacy benefit managers to determine if any impropriety is taking place.
Skoufis, a Woodbury Democrat who took office this month and was named chairman of the Investigations and Governmental Operations Committee, said this week that pharmacy benefit managers are one of the first matters his seven-member panel will explore. He said the probe will look into allegations that those powerful distributors and price-setters are undercutting pharmacies on reimbursements, and explore the relationship between them and regulators in the state Department of Health.
"We're going to highlight wrongdoing, and try to correct any wrongdoing," Skoufis said.
He's vowing to energize a committee that wields subpoena power but hasn't been aggressive in policing state government or the industries it regulates. Last year, it held a single public hearing: a joint session with two other committees to ask utility executives why it took their companies so long to restore power in the Hudson Valley after a nor'easter dumped snow on the region.
Early indications that Skoufis and the new leader of the Assembly's investigations committee might turn up the heat on the administration prompted a warning from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who hinted in a radio interview that he could retaliate against such scrutiny by blocking or slowing lawmakers' grants.
Skoufis, for his part, says his own committee's work will be "impartial" and "professional."
"We're treating this responsibility very seriously," he said.
Delving into the arcane world of prescription drug pricing might not yield the political sparks some may have expected. Skoufis concedes his committee might not choose the most "politically sexy" topics, but said he's aiming for substantive investigations that yield results, whether in the form of a report, a bill or a referral to law enforcement agencies.
"I ultimately want something tangible to come out of these investigations," he said. "Ultimately, I want improvements to be made out of what we are doing."
Skoufis said his committee, which also reviews bills in its purview, will continue its investigations after the six-month legislative session ends in June, working year-round. He has hired two people for his own Senate office staff to work on investigations, and said they already have opened more than one. He would not identify any pending topic other than pharmacy benefit managers.
Skoufis said he asked the new Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, to let him lead the investigations committee, but only with the assurance that it would be allowed to conduct robust probes. He said he had proved he has the political independence needed for that sort of work during his six years in the Assembly.
"I've got the stomach to take on these investigations that maybe some other people don't," he said.