AARP Rhode Island calls on Congress to act on lowering high drug costs

Published on March 14, 2022 in Rhode Island News Today

On the day before the Washington, DC-based AARP’s March 8th launch of its new ad campaign showing the impact of Congress’s failure to act on prescription drug prices, AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor, Volunteer State President Marcus Mitchell and Volunteer Lead Federal Liaison Dr. Phil Zarlengo joined Rhode Island US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse for a virtual news conference highlighting the need for Congress to act now to slash rising prescription drug costs. 

During the 26 minute and 45 second event, AARP Rhode Island, representing 132,000 members, delivered a petition signed by more than 16,114 Rhode Islanders, calling for Congress to act now and stop unfair drug prices. AARP has called for fair drug prices for years and supports legislation that passed the House in November, which would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, put a cap on out-of-pocket costs that older adults pay for their prescription drugs and impose penalties on drug companies that raise prices faster than the rate of inflation.

“Americans are fed up with paying three times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs. More than four million people across the country, including more than 16,000 here in the Ocean State, are joining AARP to demand lower prices for prescription drugs,” said Taylor in a statement announcing the petition being delivered to Reed and Whitehouse. “There will never be a better time to lower drug prices than the historic opportunity in front of Congress. Now is the time to get it done!” Taylor says.

Big Pharma makes billions from high drug costs

“Big Pharma is making billions while seniors and taxpayers are suffering,” says AARP State President Mitchell, noting that just last month Big Pharma raised the prices of 800 prescription medications.” People are sick and tired of paying three times for prescription drugs what people in other countries are paying for these drugs, “It’s outrageous and unacceptable,” Mitchell said.

According to Mitchell, “if consumer prices had risen as fast as drug prices during the last 15 years, gas would cost $12.20 a gallon and milk would cost $13 a gallon.” This gives perspective to this issue, he said.

“Big Pharma is trying again to scare lawmakers and members of AARP and everyone else with misleading claims to stop Medicare to negotiate prices, charged Zarlengo. “We, at least, know the truth. The truth is by allowing Medicare negotiation [of prices], that process will help seniors during these times of inflation by lowing their prices of drugs and putting more money in their pocket,” he said.

Zarlengo gave the two Rhode Island Senators a message from Rhode Island seniors: “Don’t let Pharma win this time, lets lower drug prices now.”

“We hear you loud and clear,” said Senator Reed, responding to the over 16,000 signees of AARP’s petition. “Congress must address this issue of drug pricing. The system continues to force families into untenable choices between their health and other basic needs. One of the simplest things to do is to allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. I have been urging administrations, both Republican and Democratic for more than a decade to do this,” he noted.

“The VA already does this,” said Senator Whitehouse told his fellow panelists and those tuning in to the March 7 news conference. “And there is a big discrepancy in what the Veterans Administration (VA) pays for drugs and what Medicare pays for drugs. We have a reconciliation bill still in the Senate; it’s something Democrats can pass with only 50 votes. The bad news is that we need all 50 members to agree on the reconciliation measure and that has proven difficult. I hope we can agree on a package that all 50 of us can sign off on… and finally, finally, finally give Americans the drug pricing relief that they need. AARP is incredibly important in this fight. All your members make a difference. Thank you for stepping up yet again,” he said.

AARP fights Big Pharma on television and with digital advertising

In AARP’s new ad campaign, Larry Zarzecki, a retired law enforcement officer with Parkinson’s Disease who was forced to sell his home in order to afford his medications, returns to the airways as a spokesperson for AARP, illustrating the impact of the high cost of prescription drugs on seniors.  The retiree first shared his story in an AARP ad three years ago, but Congress’ failure to act means he has had no relief from the high cost of his treatments. As he says in the new ad, “I shouldn’t have to decide between my home or my medicine because Congress refuses to act. I’m tired of waiting for Congress.”

AARP’s seven-figure ad buy includes television and digital advertising in the DC area, and television in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.

Responding to AARP’s new ad campaign, AARP Rhode Island’s Taylor said: “Larry Zarzecki was forced to sell his home in order to afford his medications.  He is but one example of Congress’ failure to act. No one should have to give up a home in order to pay for over-priced prescription medicines.  She called on Congress to put a stop to “spiraling price increases” by giving Medicare the authority to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices.

“If the Veterans Administration can do so – paying roughly half as much for brand name prescription drugs as does Medicare Part D – then why can’t Medicare?” says Taylor.  “For a decade, Big Pharma has spent more on stock buybacks and dividends than on research and development; it’s outrageous that drug makers are charging Americans three times what people in other countries pay for the same drugs and justifying it with lies and scare tactics that simply don’t hold up,” she  added.

AARP has called for lower drug prices for years and is urging the Senate to pass legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, put a cap on out-of-pocket costs that older adults pay for their prescription drugs and impose penalties on drug companies that raise prices faster than the rate of inflation.

“Americans are sick and tired of Congress’ broken promises to bring down the price of prescription drugs,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer announcing the launching of this ad campaign. “As Americans pay more and more for many consumer goods, Congress has an historic opportunity to lower drug prices and help seniors like Larry to afford their medications and other essentials,” she said.

It’s time to act NOW

According to AARP, without congressional action, pharmaceutical companies will continue to set high prices for prescription drugs and raise them without any warning or justification. The Washington, DC based advocacy group representing 38 million members recently released a report showing that 75 of the 100 brand name drugs with the highest total Medicare Part D spending have already increased their  list prices in the first month of 2022.

During the State of the Union, President Biden called for Congress to bring down the price of prescription drugs as a way to help consumers manage rising prices. The House of Representatives passed several prescription drug measures as part of the Build Back Better Act in November, but the Senate has yet to pass similar legislation.

It’s time for the Senate to put the welfare of the nation’s seniors first by passing legislation to put the brakes to spiraling prescription drug costs. This will be a hot campaign issue in the upcoming mid-term elections, just 230 days from now.

Keynote: Fine Calls for Community Health Stations Across Rhode Island

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 20, 2018

Last week, the Rhode Island Minority Elder Task Force (RIMETF) held a Health and Wellness Fair at the Cape Verdean Progressive Center in East Providence to put a spot light on minority health care needs.

Dr. Michael Fine, a primary care physician who formerly was the state’s Health Director, and now serves as Senior Population Health and Clinical Officer at the Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, Inc., gave the keynote address, calling for an overhaul of America’s ailing health care delivery system.

Although RIMETF’s primary mission is to raise money and seek grants to provide limited emergency assistance to low-income seniors in crisis situations, the organization also promotes the advancement of inclusive programs for minority elders, says Susan Sweet, the nonprofit’s founder, a former state official who advocated for, developed and operated programs and services provided to the state’s vulnerable populations, including elders. She continued that work after retirement from the state. “During the last two decades, RIMETF provided more than $53,000 in grants,” she said.

According to Sweet, RIMETF’s $200 grants help low income seniors to pay utility costs, rent, food, medications, clothing, furniture, personal healthcare items and other necessities of life. She says that 80 grants are given out annually, about half going to minority applicants.

But, the decision to host a Health and Wellness Fair on May 11, 2018, was tied to minorities having a lack of access to health care services and to have Dr. Fine outline a better way of providing care to Rhode Island’s minorities, adds Sweet. “To this day the state’s diverse minorities continue to remain in the dark about health care programs and services that they can access and that lack of information has a detrimental impact on their health and well-being,” says Sweet.

Health Disparities in Rhode Island

During his thirty-minute keynote, Dr. Fine, a primary care physician who formerly was the state’s Health Director, and now serves as Senior Population Health
and Clinical Officer at the Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, Inc., provided the details as to how lack of access to health care adversely impacts the health and life expectancy of Rhode Island’s minorities.

According to Dr. Fine, infant mortality in the African American population is about three times as high than in the white population. Diabetes is about two times more common in the African-American population than it is in the white population. He also noted that life expectancy in the United States is 4.5 years less among the African American population than it is among the white population.

Zeroing in on Cape Verdeans, Dr. Fine noted that the Rhode Island Department of Health does not track the health of this minority group separately from other groups. The state’s primary care practices and community health centers don’t have a good way to decide who counts as a Cape Verdean for health tracking purposes, he said. But about half of the Cape Verdean community in Rhode Island live in Pawtucket and Central Falls, so that health information collected using the electronic medical record by Blackstone Valley Community Health Center (BVCHC), Inc, provides the first ever look at the health status of Cape Verdeans in Rhode Island.

It’s difficult to know if that data is complete, because it doesn’t allow us to count all Cape Verdeans at the BVCHC, but only those people who speak Cape Verdean Creole or those who identify themselves as having been born in Cape Verde. “Because we have no complete way to identify the health status of the Cape Verdean population, we have no certain way to identify specials needs and opportunities to provide better health care to this minority group,” says Dr. Fine. In addition, because Cape Verdean Creole is not a written language, “we have no way to certify Cape Verdean medical translators” which means some of the health care needs of Cape Verdeans go unaddressed, he adds.

But, there are better ways to improve the health care of Rhode Island’s Cape Verdeans, says Dr. Fine. “We must make sure that all Cape Verdeans are enrolled in a primary care practice or community health center,” he says, noting that electronic medical systems can provide better measures of the health of this population.

Dr. Fine called for Cape Verdeans to be appointed to boards of health care organizations to represent them in decision of allocation of resources, to demand better translation services, and to improve delivery of health care to Rhode Island’s Cape Verdeans.

As to Rhode Islanders, Dr. Fine noted that 25 to 45 percent don’t get primary care and prevention. As a result, there are 1,200 unnecessary deaths a year from heart disease and stroke. There are 200 unnecessary deaths a year from colon cancer and 65-70 unnecessary cases of HIV. Up to 200,000 Rhode Islanders remain smokers, he says.

Dr. Fine continued to detail the negative impact on the health of Rhode Islanders if they did not visit a primary care physician. More than 1,500 babies are born to teenagers, more than a third to minorities. Not to mention that there are 330 to 400 avoidable deaths from influenza every year due lack of immunization (500,000 Rhode Islanders are currently not immunized every year). And there are 330 deaths a year from prescriptions and other drug overdoses, he says.

It’s Time for a Change

Dr. Fine warns that major changes must be made to the nation’s health care delivery system to reduce spiraling health care costs and to provide better access. This solution can be modeled after his Central Falls Neighborhood Health Station (CFNHS), he says. It’s a multi and interdisciplinary approach, bringing a wide variety of health care professionals together, from physician, nurses, physician assistants, mental health workers, nutritionists, substance abuse workers and midwifes, to rehabilitation professionals, CFNHS’s must also provide urgent care and primary care services, be open on weekends and have “sick today access appointments.” Says Dr. Fine.

Fine has documented early successes in the CFNHS’s delivery of health care. Adolescent pregnancy was been reduced by 24 percent in 2016 and emergency medical service runs were reduced by 5 percent in just 12 months.

Dr. Fine envisions a Neighborhood Health Station in every community of 10,000 persons. When up and running, “we’ll increase life expectancy, reduce infant mortality and revitalize the local economy,” he says, by reducing health care costs.

Concluding the Health and Wellness Fair, Director Charles J. Fogarty, of the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs, who will be retiring next month, was recognized by RIMETF for his 40 years of public service and his support for the work of the Minority Elder Task Force.

For more details regarding the work of the RI Minority Elder Task Force or to make a donation, write RIMETF, 5 Leahy Street, Rumford, RI 02916 or call Lori Brennan Almeida, Chairperson, at 401-497-1287.