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How to start getting a handle on prescription drug prices


For decades, Big Pharma has raised drug prices with impunity. Here in New York, the average annual cost of brand name prescription drug treatment grew by 58% between 2012 and 2017, while the annual income for New Yorkers increased by only 11.5%.

Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them.

That’s why the U.S. Senate needs to take action now that Congress is back in session. It’s time. We thank New York’s senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, for being champions in the fight to lower prescription drug prices, and we urge them now to push for passage of the bipartisan Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act.

AARP is also encouraged by our senators’ strong support for allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices — a proposal supported by the vast majority of Democratic (90%), Republican (93%) and independent (95%) voters age 50 and over in a national poll — and we urge that this plan be enacted.

For too long, drug companies have been price gouging seniors and hardworking Americans.

Consider insulin, which people with diabetes rely on. Its price nearly tripled from 2002 to 2013. But it isn’t a breakthrough drug: Insulin was invented nearly a century ago, yet modern formulations remain under patent, thanks to drug makers manipulating the system. Some patients trek to Canada, while others risk their lives by rationing or skipping doses.

Even those of us who don’t need insulin or other prescription drugs are affected by skyrocketing drug prices. We pay not only at the pharmacy counter, but through higher insurance premiums, and through the higher taxes we need to pay to fund programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Older Americans are hit especially hard. Medicare Part D enrollees take an average of four to five prescriptions per month, and their average annual income is around $26,000. One in three Americans has not taken a medication as prescribed because of the cost.

The root cause of the problem is clear: The high prices of prescription drugs set by pharmaceutical companies when they first come on the market, which then increase faster than inflation year after year.

The bill under consideration in the Senate would cap out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors and crack down on drug makers whose price hikes outpace inflation. The nation clearly needs this reform: The average drug price increase in the first six months of 2019 was 10.5% — five times the rate of inflation. New Yorkers, like all Americans, already pay among the highest drug prices in the world.

Meanwhile, Big Pharma is fighting for the status quo, and blocking needed improvements to the system that could bring relief. Drug giants Merck, Amgen and Eli Lilly actually sued the Trump administration so they could keep the list prices of their drugs secret from the public. The industry is spending record sums to hire Washington lobbyists, and they are running ads claiming that more affordable drugs will actually harm consumers.

But the tide is turning. The National Academy for State Health Policy reports that, so far this year, 29 states have passed 47 new laws aimed at lowering prices for prescription medications. The New York State Legislature passed a bill to prohibit out-of-pocket prescription cost increases on health plan enrollees in the middle of a contract year, a bill we urge Gov. Cuomo to sign when it reaches his desk.

But ultimately, drug costs are a national issue, making federal action essential.

In D.C., there is rare bipartisan agreement that something must be done. President Trump addressed the issue in his State of the Union, saying: “It is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place. This is wrong, unfair, and together we can stop it.” Now, his administration is exploring a safe importation program.

The critical next step is for the Senate to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act this fall, when the House is expected to act on its own drug pricing bill.

Congress needs to act to stop prescription greed, and it needs to do it now

Asen is president of AARP New York State.