High Prescription Drug Prices: Taking Action At the National Level

June 27, 2019

By Jill Zorn |

Prescription drug prices are much higher – generally at least twice as high – in the United States than in other industrialized countries.

There are many reasons why drug prices are so much higher in our country.  We don’t have universal health coverage and the patent system prevents competition for long periods of time.  The system for setting drug prices is also extremely complex and opaque.

In Washington, DC there appears to be bipartisan agreement about actually “doing something” about high prescription drug prices.  For example, the Senate, which rarely passes legislation these days, is actively debating drug price bills in several committees, including Finance, Health, Education and Labor (HELP) and Judiciary Committees.  Senator Richard Blumenthal sits on the Judiciary Committee and Senator Chris Murphy is a member of the HELP Committee.

The Need To Use Negotiating Power

One of the most important reasons drug prices are so high is because every industrialized country in the world negotiates prescription drug prices on behalf of their residents – except the United States.  Right now, pharmaceutical companies are unchecked from setting astronomical drug prices for brand-name drugs and raising those prices whenever they want.

Until the negotiating power of the federal government is used effectively, drug prices will never be brought under control in the United States.  Yet getting to the point where the federal government negotiates prices for all drug sold in the US, as is done in other countries, seems an almost unattainable goal.

Medicare

The obvious first step is to empower the government to negotiate prescription drug prices for Medicare recipients.  However, despite strong public backing across party lines, bills focused on Medicare negotiation lack bipartisan support in Congress.  So, the focus of activity is in the US House of Representatives, where Democrats are in the majority.

A House bill with a lot of support right now is H.R. 1046, the Medicare Negotiation and Competitive Licensing Act.   The chief sponsor of the bill is Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas.  The bill is endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has 126 co-sponsors, including three from Connecticut:  Reps. Rosa DeLauro, John Larson and Joe Courtney.

Negotiation can only work if there is a strong enforcement mechanism.  Under the Doggett bill, “if a drug company will not agree to a fair and affordable price determined through negotiation, the federal government can issue a ‘competitive license’ for the drug.  Under a competitive license, a generic manufacturer will be permitted to make the drug at a lower cost for Medicare beneficiaries.”  Competitive licensing forces companies to put the monopoly position they were granted by gaining a patent on a given drug at risk if they fail to negotiate in good faith.

It is possible a second high profile bill focused on Medicare drug price negotiation may emerge soon, sponsored by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.  When this bill might be unveiled and just what might be in it is unclear, as the process has been largely hidden from view, even from most Democrats.  Democratic leadership has reportedly also been speaking with White House staffers, gauging whether a bipartisan compromise bill might be possible.

Coalition for Fair Drug Prices

Because people are so concerned about unaffordable prescription drug prices, Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut has chosen to work on this issue both at the state and federal level.  We are one of the few state-based organizations who are members of the Coalition for Fair Drug Prices.  The 12 member coalition has issued a Statement of Principles focused on pricing and affordability, innovation and transparency.  The principles identify that the “top priority for action must be to address outrageous list prices that manufacturers charge.”

In April, the coalition issued a white paper that identifies key policy approaches for maximizing the federal government’s negotiating power to rein in high prescription drug prices.  Last month, key members of the coalition met with members of Speaker Pelosi’s staff to make sure our voices are heard as leadership moves forward on this issue.

Building a National Movement

While advocates are working together to achieve consensus on policy, they are also focusing on building power on the outside, to put pressure on Congress to take action.

A group of progressive organizations are in the process of building a national prescription drug affordability campaign.  On June 20, 2019 they held a rally at the capitol.  Many people in attendance held signs stating, “Stop Corporate Monopolies” and “Lower Drug Prices Now!”

On the same day, the Affordable Insulin Now campaign was launched, with a demonstration outside Eli Lilly’s Indianapolis headquarters.  Eli Lily is one of the three major corporations that sell insulin at hugely inflated prices.

Universal Health Care Foundation is proud to be fighting alongside both state and national partners to lower prescription drug prices NOW!

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