A Growing National Outcry for Lower Prescription Drug Prices

by: Elijah Cummings Special to the AFRO
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Elijah Cummings

For most Americans, the out-of-pocket prices that we must pay for essential prescription drugs, already too high, are increasing far too rapidly for our family budgets to sustain.  The Congress has the ability to moderate these price spikes — but only a sustained national outcry from the American people will bring about reform.

A recent poll issued by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 72 percent of Americans believe that drug prices are unreasonable, while 74 percent believe that drug companies “put profits before people.”

It would be hard to dispute those conclusions.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Americans, who already were paying the highest prescription drug prices in the world, saw the average prices for their prescriptions jump by more than 12 percent last year.

Those price increases are more than double the rise in overall medical costs, and, far too often, the burden is falling most heavily upon those of us who are least able to absorb the shock.

This is why, for some time now, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and I have been investigating the skyrocketing prices for prescription drugs.  We have received evidence of repeated drug price increases with no apparent justification and with no evident link to any increase in the cost of manufacturing these drugs.

Total spending on medicines in the United States has gone up by more than 90 percent since 2002.  The median monthly cost of cancer drugs, for example, has more than doubled to $9,900 over the last ten years.

At a time when the top three pharmaceutical companies made a combined $45 billion profit last year, the American people are reaching a breaking point just trying to afford their medications.

As a result, nearly one in every five Americans [35 million of our countrymen and women] was unable to fill at least one prescription last year because they could not afford it.

Now, in the wake of extraordinary price spikes for life-preserving prescriptions by companies like Turing Pharmaceuticals, Rodelis Therapeutics, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Gilead Sciences and others, the American people are demanding congressional action.

This is why I have joined Senator Sanders and a number of our colleagues (including my Maryland colleague, Congressman John Sarbanes) in introducing comprehensive legislation to lower these soaring prescription drug prices, the Prescription Drug Affordability Act of 2015 [H.R.3513, S.2023].

Here are the major reforms that we are seeking to enact.

First, a huge majority of Americans [including 93 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans] want the federal government to negotiate with the drug companies to lower prices.

We already utilize negotiation to obtain more reasonably priced prescriptions for the Veterans Administration and Medicaid programs.  Our proposed legislation would authorize the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries as well — a cost-saving measure that currently is prohibited by law.

Not only would this single legislative action substantially reduce the prices that seniors pay for prescription drugs, it could well save Medicare over $500 billion during the next decade.

Second, our legislation would lower the current barriers to the importation of more reasonably priced prescription drugs from Canada, where drug prices are 40 percent lower per person than they are in the U.S.

Finally, in addition to imposing tougher penalties for drug companies that commit fraud, our Prescription Drug Affordability Act would restrict so-called “pay-for-delay” deals that stifle competition.

Pay-for-delay is a practice used by some brand name drug manufacturers that pay generic manufacturers to delay bringing lower-priced generic substitutes to the market.  The FTC has estimated that this practice is costing consumers and taxpayers about $3.5 billion each year in higher drug prices.

Our legislation is supported by organizations that speak for millions of Americans, including the Alliance for Retired Americans, Social Security Works, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the National Center for Health Research, Public Citizen, the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved, RxRights, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the National AHEC Organization, Justice in Aging, Families USA, PharmacyChecker.com, the Campaign for Personal Prescription Importation, Knowledge Ecology International, and the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

We can be heartened that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Democratic presidential candidates are making prescription drug reform — including placing a cap on monthly out-of-pocket costs — a cornerstone of their campaigns.

Yet, we also know that only a massive public outcry of support will give the Congress the courage to stand up to lobbyists for a prescription drug industry that spent more than $250 million last year on campaign contributions and lobbying expenses.

That public outcry for reform is building strength.  In April, another Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that the increasing cost of prescription drugs is now the number one healthcare issue among 66 percent of Republicans.

My Republican colleagues — and their allies in the pharmaceutical industry — should heed these calls for reform.  Achieving more reasonable and affordable prescription drug prices is an issue of concern for all Americans — Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.

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