Reining in predatory pharmaceutical drug prices

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

I’ll bet every Orange County Register reader knows someone who relies on prescription medication to stay alive.

Whether they’re fighting cancer, controlling high blood pressure or diabetes, treating an auto immune disease or a bout with pneumonia, access to medication is just as critical as food and water for many in our communities.

Without it, family units crumble under the weight of crisis and costs, the workforce erodes, our communities fray, and people die.

Unfortunately, some pharmaceutical companies have capitalized on the desperation of sick people by jacking up the cost of life-saving drugs.

We’ve heard these stories in the news for years. In one example, the cost of one type of insulin increased by 461 percent over an eight-year period. In another, the price of Daraprim, which is used to treat cancer and AIDS patients with suppressed immune systems, has increased by more than 5,000 percent.

The pharmaceutical industry isn’t required to tie these increases to effectiveness of the drugs. And they don’t have justify the increases based on manufacturing or research costs either. Instead, they can charge as much as they believe people will pay. And they know families will sacrifice a lot to keep a loved one alive.

Additionally, the industry is not required to provide adequate notice to consumers and health systems when they raise drug prices. An uninsured person going through cancer treatment can literally discover the cost of their medication has skyrocketed from one week to the next.

It’s no wonder that a 2015 Reuters analysis found that “U.S. prices for the world’s 20 top-selling medicines are, on average, three times higher than in Britain.”

These exploitative practices threaten the affordability of health care coverage for individuals, employers and those who provide health care.

That is why a diverse coalition of business, labor unions, consumers, health care providers and local governments are working to bring greater transparency to prescription drug pricing.

Senate Bill 17 requires drug companies to provide a 60-day notice when they dramatically increase drug prices. And it requires health plans to identify the drugs that are driving the most spending so there’s greater transparency about what’s driving the cost of medical care.

Put simply, the bill aims to reduce skyrocketing prescription costs by providing transparency in drug pricing.

Providing advanced notice of rising drug prices will help reduce costs in a number of ways. It allows consumers the time they need to find alternatives to costly drugs, to hold third-party purchasers accountable and to negotiate lower costs.

And it gives everyone—from individuals to employers to health plans—an opportunity to budget for increases.

A 2016 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly 9 in 10 Americans support greater transparency in prescription drug pricing. Still, pharmaceutical companies are funneling millions of dollars into lobbying efforts to kill this much-needed reform. They mustn’t succeed.

Lawmakers have a responsibility to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable. Especially when so many lives hang in the balance.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: August 11, 2017