Fixing rising pharmaceutical drug costs once and for all

Published in RI News Today on September 27, 2021

Just days ago, WBUR.org, Boston’s NPR News Station, featuring NPR News and Programs, aired a 45.37 minute program, “Steps to Fix America’s Broken Prescription Drug System,”  clearly illustrating the need to fix America’s ailing prescription drug program.  While Americans are traveling to Mexico in search of affordable prescription drugs, referred to as “Pharmaceutical Tourism,” the NPR program added a new twist. Now some state insurance companies are sending their beneficiaries to Mexico to purchase cheaper their pharmaceuticals manufactured in the United States at a lower price, on their tab.  

For instance, let’s take a look at Ann Lovell, of  Salt Lake City, Utah. The NPR Program, aired on Sept. 24, 2021, introduced us to the hearing-impaired former teacher who worked at an early-intervention program for deaf students that’s part of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, who traveled from Utah to Mexico five times to purchase Enbrel, to treat rheumatoid arthritis, with travel costs and a $500 cash incentive paid by her insurer, the Public Employees Health Program (PEHP). 

Lovell’s Utah physician writes her a prescription, and each tie she travels to Mexico she sees a physician at the Tijuana-based hospital as well.  She updates the physician on her medical condition, gets her prescription, and takes it to the pharmacist, who gives her the medication. 

NPR’s program noted that the Utah initiative was created under a 2018 state law, “Right to Buy,” by Republican Congressman Norm Thurston.  PEHP offers it only for people who use a drug on a list of about a dozen medications were the state can see significant savings.  Of the 150,000 state and local public employees covered by the insurer, fewer than 400 are eligible to participate.

Responding to a tweet promoting the offer, Levell quickly enrolled for as they say an offer she could not refuse.  She and a companion would travel on an all-expenses paid trip from Utah to Tijuana, Mexico to pick buy her pharmaceuticals at a steep discount paid for by the state of Utah’s public insurer to slash the high cost of prescription drugs. PEHP would only have to pay half of the cost of Embrel versus if Levell got it in the United States, saving tens of thousands of dollars. The annual U.S. list price for the drug, Enbrel, is over $62,000 per patient. 

It was one long, exhausting travel day.  At 5:00 a.m., Lovell and her friend flew from Salt Lake City to San Diego.  There, an escort picked them up and took them across the boarder to a Tijuana hospital, where she got a refill on her prescription.  After that, they were shuttled back to the airport and arrived back home by midnight. 

Lovell said she initially began paying $50 a month for her pharmaceutical, increasing to $450 in co-pays.  It would have increased up to $2,500 if she hadn’t started traveling to Mexico.  Without the program, she would not be able to afford the medicine she needed

With the COVID-19 pandemic closing the borders, PEHP’s “Pharmaceutical Tourism” initiative came to an end with the borders closing.   Lovell’s insurer came up with a new option of getting Enbrel at lower cost.  That’s when Lovell was told about the drug manufacturer’s coo-pay program where she would only have to pay five dollars a month.  

Calls for Medicare Negotiating the Cost of Pharmaceuticals 

Although traveling to Mexico or Canada to purchase more affordable pharmaceuticals is a temporary fix, the Washington, DC-based AARP calls for a permanent solution.  The national AARP advocacy group has launched a $4 million ad buy calling Medicare to step in to lowering the spiraling costs of pharmaceuticals.  

The Washington, DC-AARP noted that a recent AARP survey of voters found that 80% agreed or strongly agreed that drug prices could be lowered without harming innovation of new medicines. Strong majorities of voters, regardless of political affiliation, want Congress to act on the issue this year, with 70% saying it is very important. The survey also found that 87% of voters support allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. 

AARP’s full-scale ad campaign blitz, including a $4 million ad buy, pushing back on false claims from the pharmaceutical industry that reforms would limit Americans’ access to medicines. AARP has called for fair drug prices for years and is urging Congress 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.

AARP’s new national ad campaign points out that Americans’ tax dollars subsidize new drug development even as Big Pharma charges Americans dramatically higher drug prices. The ad goes on to urge Congress to “stop the Big Pharma scam. Let Medicare negotiate drug prices.” Beginning tomorrow, it will air nationally on MSNBC and CNN; and in the DC metro area on the Sunday political shows and local radio stations, as well as on digital platforms including the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and Politico. In addition to paid advertising, AARP members began taking part in grassroots action beginning September 20. A social media campaign calling for older adults to #ShowYourReceipts has led thousands to share their monthly medication costs with AARP, with their monthly “bills” now running over $11 million.

“Americans are fed up with paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer in a Sept. 17, 2021 statement announcing this advertising campaign. “Our 38 million members are watching and they are counting on their members of Congress to do what’s right and vote to let Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices.”

Now, Congress Must Act…

Congress is currently debating measures to rein in the cost of prescription drugs, and the House Ways & Means Committee advanced legislation this week that includes many of AARP’s priorities on fair drug prices.