For decades, Virginians have seen their drug prices skyrocket without rhyme or reason. In the commonwealth, the average annual cost of brand-name prescription drug treatment increased 58% between 2012 and 2017, while the annual income for Virginians increased only 8.5%. Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them.
That’s why the Senate needs to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act when it returns from August recess. It’s time. We thank Sen. Mark Warner for his support of this bipartisan bill in the Senate Finance Committee, and we urge Sen. Tim Kaine to join him in backing it when the Senate convenes. We also thank both Warner and Kaine for their support of measures that would allow Medicare to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs.
Drug makers deserve credit and should get fairly compensated for the work they do to create medicines that can improve and even save lives. Three years ago, my wife battled stage 2 breast cancer. That she is thriving today is a tremendous blessing, due in large part to newly developed miracle medicines — as well as the insurance we were lucky enough to have that made them affordable. In traveling around the state, I’ve heard similar messages of gratitude from many Virginians.
However, the drug makers’ claims that their research is only possible because of skyrocketing prices ring hollow. Pharmaceutical companies spent nearly $169 million for lobbying and more than $6 billion for advertising in 2018. Nearly 80% of every pharmaceutical company dollar goes to something other than research and development.
And these exploding prices aren’t limited to new blockbuster drugs. Insulin, which more than one out of every 10 Virginians rely on to treat their diabetes, was invented in 1921. Still, the price of insulin nearly tripled from 2002 to 2013. Thanks to loopholes in the system, drug makers have been able to keep “modern formulations” of a nearly century-old drug under patent. To stay alive now, some diabetes patients trek to Canada to buy their insulin, 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.
In March, AARP launched a nationwide campaign called “Stop Rx Greed” to rein in drug prices for all Virginians and all Americans.
The bill under consideration in the Senate would cap out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors and crack down on drug prices rising faster than 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. Virginians, like all Americans, already pay among the highest drug prices in the world.
Those high prices are funding efforts by drug makers to protect the status quo — and blocking needed improvements to the system that could bring relief to seniors, families and small businesses. Several drug giants 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.
Luckily, 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. AARP Virginia is committed to adding our state to that list. Right now, all Americans need action at the federal level.
In Washington, D.C., there is rare bipartisan agreement that something must be done. President Trump addressed the issue in his State of the Union speech, 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.” Virginia’s congressional delegation is in the position to lead on this issue and make a difference for every Virginian.
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 Virginian should be forced to choose between putting food on the table and 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.