By Charlotte Whittaker
For decades, Big Pharma has raised drug prices with impunity. In Kentucky, the average annual cost of brand name prescription drug treatment increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2017, while the annual income for Kentuckians increased only by 3.6 percent. Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them.
The Senate needs to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act when they return from August recess. Senators McConnell and Paul should back this vital legislation, which passed the Senate Finance Committee in July with strong bipartisan support.
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 4-5 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.
In March AARP launched a nationwide campaign called Stop Rx Greed to rein in drug prices for all Kentuckians and all Americans. 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 percent — five times the rate of inflation. Kentuckians, 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 to seniors, families and small businesses. 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. Ultimately, drug costs are a national issue, so federal action is equally 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.” Kentucky’s congressional delegation is in the position to lead on this issue and make a difference for every Kentuckian.
We urge the Senate to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act in the fall, when the House is expected to act on its own drug pricing bill.
While there is reason to be hopeful that drug prices will come down, hope is not enough. Too much is at stake. No Kentuckian should be forced to choose between putting food on the table or buying a lifesaving medication. Congress needs to act to stop Rx greed. This legislation should be at the top of the agenda when the Senate returns to Washington.
-Charlotte Whittaker is the AARP Kentucky volunteer state president.
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