Editorial: Americans deserve lower drug prices

Published: 3/3/2019 12:05:10 AM

If health care costs were transparent and the truth told, plenty of death certificates would read “cause of death – inability to pay.”

Grim stories abound of people dying because they couldn’t afford a prescription drug or rationed their medications.

Solid numbers don’t exist, but a 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated the toll at 45,000 people per year. That was before the Affordable Care Act and expansion of Medicaid provided coverage for millions of uninsured. It was also, however, before prescription drug prices began skyrocketing without cause or explanation.

One in four Americans claim they have a hard time meeting their family’s prescription drug needs. Patients have had it. Doctors, who have to spend countless hours arguing with insurers, have had it. Now Congress has had it.

Last week seven pharmaceutical company executives were called before the Senate Finance Committee, which includes New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, and asked to explain their pricing policies. They failed. The result should, and almost certainly will, be new laws governing the operation of an industry critical to the lives of every American.

“Right now it is so convoluted and so not transparent that my constituents can’t figure out what the price of their medications should be day to day,’’ Hassan told the drug company CEOs.

Without providing any evidence, the executives claimed that research costs justified high prices. They pointed their fingers of blame elsewhere, with most focusing on pharmacy benefit managing companies like Express Scripts and CVS Caremark that run prescription drug programs on behalf of insurers.

A host of bills have been filed that would attack the drug price problem, and every member of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation is behind one or more of them. Hassan and Shaheen have introduced bills that would give the Medicare Part D program the right to negotiate lower drug prices on behalf of 43 million people. That’s years over due.

Shaheen and Hassan also want patients to be able to import drugs from countries whose prescription drug systems have been determined to be safe. That, too, should happen.

We’re far less enthusiastic about a Shaheen bill that would prohibit pharmaceutical companies from deducting the cost of consumer advertising from federal taxes. It would be satisfying to do so, but it would be unfair to target one industry.

The advertising costs of alcoholic beverage companies or gun makers would remain deductible, for example, and the change would not lower drug costs substantially.

We do support bills that would allow the government to manufacture and sell, or license the right to do so, life-saving drugs like insulin, which have been subject to price gouging. Legislation that would cap the amount a patient would have to pay per month for drugs under their insurance plan is another idea worth exploring.

It’s also time to crack down on the fundamentally corrupt practice that allows drug companies to make tiny, inconsequential changes to a drug to extend the life of patent protection and protect profits.

AbbVie, maker of Humira, the most prescribed drug in the world, had 136 patents on that drug alone, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said at the hearing, The patent system is in dire need of reform. Bills to speed to the market cheaper, generic versions of drugs should become law.

The president has demanded lower drug prices and a bipartisan effort to do so is underway. It’s time for Congress to give him some bills to sign.


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