Efforts To Corral Issue Has Stalled Amid Healthcare Debate
By David O. Williams, Special to the GPHN
As lawmakers and the White House continue to wrangle over the Affordable Care Act and its Republican-sponsored replacement, the American Health Care Act, efforts to corral one of the most talked-about components of health care – the rising prices of prescription drugs – has largely stalled both in Washington and Colorado.
Meanwhile, many prescription drug prices are continuing to spiral upwards. In early May, for example, the Indianapolis-based drug giant Eli Lilly raised the prices of nine of its medicines between 6 and 10 percent, according to data obtained by CNBC. The increases included a 9.9 percent hike for the blood thinner Effient; 7.8 percent increases for the insulin medications Humalog and Humulin; and a 6.9 percent increase for the psoriasis drug Taltz.
According to the Washington-based Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing, in 2015 the prices of prescription drugs saw the largest increases in 24 years. Overall, prescription drug prices have risen more than 7 percent since last year, the largest one-year hike since 1992.
The increases have been across the board. The prices for insulin, used to treat diabetes, have skyrocketed in the past few years. Last year the price of the EpiPen drug, used to treat life-threatening food allergies, made headlines when it jumped from about $100 for a two-pack dosage to as high as $600.
Lawmakers in Washington and in Colorado have vowed to crack down, and President Donald Trump made the rising costs of prescription drugs one of his signature campaign issues. However, observers often cite the pharmaceutical industry and its powerful lobbying network for thwarting any real progress.
“The market for prescription drugs in this country is out of control and fundamentally broken,” said Will Holley, spokesman for the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing. The nonpartisan coalition includes organizations ranging from AARP to the American Hospital Association to Walmart to Kaiser Permanente, and seeks to find market-based solutions to lower drug prices in the U.S.
Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing is currently engaged in a public information campaign to highlight drug-pricing practices across the country, including Colorado.
“We want to make sure everyone understands what’s happening, and what they can do,” Holley said. Whether the drug is being sold in a pharmacy or being dispensed in a hospital, clinic or nursing home, patients, he said, should have access to what is being charged for prescriptions, and notified when a price hike occurs.
In the last Congress, two bipartisan bills were introduced that were, Holley said, designed to fast-track generic drugs into the marketplace.
The Fair Access for Safe and Timely (“FAST”) Generics Act would have, according to the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing and a number of partner groups, “provided a clear solution to abusive, anticompetitive business practices that increase costs to the American health care system by impeding patient access to generic and biosimilar medicines.”
The Senate version of that bill was called the CREATES Act: Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples. However, in recent months, neither of those bills has advanced. Holley cited the distraction of the refocus on the larger issue of GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with the American Health Care Act.
Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver and a co-sponsor of last year’s FAST Generics Act, said she plans to add her name again to the bill when it is reintroduced this year.
“Rep. DeGette believes Congress should devote much more time to the issue of high drug prices, and she would strongly support efforts to reduce the cost burden on consumers where possible,” said her spokeswoman, Lynne Weil. “If this could be done in the context of a bipartisan effort to improve the Affordable Care Act, she would be supportive – but because Republican House members this year have not been good partners on health care reform, much less the issue of rising drug prices, it’s difficult to say how this can be achieved on a bipartisan basis.”
Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat who’s running for governor in 2018, said he supports state and federal efforts to allow for re-importing prescription drugs.
“The state passed a Right to Try Bill and we need to clarify the federal statutes to ensure that there’s not additional liability when people re-import for their own use prescription drugs, which allows them to save considerable amounts of money on prescription drugs from Canada, Mexico and other countries,” Polis said.
“At the federal level as well, we need to look at reducing the costs of the FDA approval process,” he continued. “It costs over a billion dollars to bring a drug to market, particularly for a targeted drug. If there’s only 10,000 or 20,000 people who would benefit from it, that billion dollars in costs plus the profit margin for the drug company has to be spread among a very small number of people, so you wind up with ridiculously expensive drugs.”
Kyle Huwa, spokesman for Republican Rep. Ken Buck, said the congressman from northern Colorado believes “there’s no reason why a conversation about drug costs shouldn’t be part of the broader conversation of health care reform.”
“Congressman Buck will assess the Fast Generics Act after he can read the committee report from the Energy and Commerce Committee,” said Huwa. “He is supportive of finding ways to make prescription drugs more affordable and finding ways to positively reform the FDA approval process. He believes that the cost of care is a key element in health care reform.”
In Colorado, efforts to target runaway drug prices have failed in the last two legislative sessions.
In 2016, several Colorado lawmakers introduced HB1102, which would have required pharmaceutical companies to detail the costs to research, develop and produce drugs that are priced at more than $50,000 per year or per course of treatment. Nearly 100 drugs would have qualified, including a 12-week drug treatment for Hepatitis C, most treatments for multiple sclerosis, and many cancer therapies.
However, the bill died in the state House of Representatives.
This year, HB 1318 would have created a database for pharmaceutical costs, requiring health insurers to submit costs to the Colorado Division of Insurance. The bill was supported by the governor’s office, but ultimately died in the state Senate.
Tim Gaudette, Colorado outreach manager for Small Business Majority, highlighted a recent poll that was conducted by his organization, showing the rising cost of prescription drugs are becoming “a major concern … and many feel that drug costs are impacting their bottom line.”
The poll, released in December, included 504 owners of business of up to 100 employees. The vast majority supported a range of policy proposals to address the rising cost of prescription drugs.
For example, 88 percent of them agreed that, “it should be illegal for a drug company to pay another company that makes generic drugs to delay the release of a generic drug.”
Fully 90 percent of those polled agreed that prescription drugs that are developed with taxpayer dollars should be made affordable to every American. And, 85 percent agreed that Americans should be able to purchase prescription drugs from Canada and that the federal government should be allowed to negotiate lower Medicare drug prices.
GPHN Editor Cara DeGette contributed to this report.