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.

Social Security Gets Attention at Debate

GOP Candidates Share Their Plans for Shoring Up System’s Solvency

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 12, 2016

Last Thursday, the four surviving G0P contenders for president at the CNN Republican debate at the Bank United Center on the campus of the University of Miami, focused on meaty policy issues and not theatrics. Previous debates were heated and sparks flew between candidates. But many political wonks consider this one to be subdued, may be even a little boring. Like the other 11 debates, on March 10 Ohio Governor John Kasich, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Businessman Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, gave their two cents on scores of policy issues including, the right to bear arms, trade, jobs, illegal immigrants, education, national security, fighting ISIS, Iran’s nuclear deal and protecting Israel. But one political hot potato issue, Social Security, even got a little more air time during this debate.

With Florida having the highest percentage of retirees in the country, with nearly 3.1 million residents receiving a Social Security check, CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, brought Social Security into the debate by asking the candidates how they would keep the nation’s retirement program afloat for future generations.

Bash called on Rubio to explain his position on rising the retirement age and reducing benefits for wealthy retirees. The Florida Senator said he would not cut Social Security checks, joking that “I’m against any changes to Social Security that are bad for my mother, a Social Security recipient.”

Younger Generations Take Brunt of GOP Fix for Social Security

Rubio warned that Social Security will ultimately go bankrupt taking the country down with it. So, here’s his fix. “So what it will require is people younger, like myself, people that are 30 years away from retirement, to accept that our Social Security is going to work differently than it did for my parents,” he noted.

The 44- year-old Florida Senator, called for increasing the retirement age of younger persons to age 68 ultimately to age 70, suggesting that Social Security checks should not “grow as fast as someone who made less money.”

“Medicare could very well become the option of using my Medicare benefit to buy a private plan that I like better. Medicare Advantage does that now,” said Rubio.
Explaining what he favors making changes to Social Security, Rubio noted that “in less than five years, only 17 percent of our budget will remain discretionary; 83 percent of the federal budget in less than five years will all be spent on Medicare, Medicaid, the interest on the debt.”

CNN moderator Bash called on Trump to explain why he did not want to raise the Social Security retirement age and his rationale for not wanting to cut benefits to wealthy retirees.

Trump responded by saying that his democratic opponents oppose cutting the retirement program, evening wanting to give recipients “even more.” The businessman, becoming more of a politician, clearly sees how the heated political issue, of making changes to Social Security, will bring votes to the Democrats. ”And that’s what we’re up against. And whether we like it or not, that is what we’re up against,” he says.

“I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security [either making benefit cuts or rising the eligibility age”. Trump believes the solution is “to make this country rich again; to bring back our jobs; to get rid of deficits; to get rid of waste, fraud and abuse, which is rampant in this country.” He notes that catching improper retirement payments will also increase the solvency of the program.

Time Can Allow a Fix for Social Security Program

In response to those warning about the impending bankruptcy of the Social Security program if changes are not made, Trump says he would have a “a long-time to go,” possibly over 20 years, to increase the solvency of the program. It seems that he does believes that time will be on his side to fix Social Security, if he becomes president.

“The numbers don’t add up,” charges Rubio, to Trump’s assertion that reducing fraud and waste and in Social Security, the nation’s foreign aid programs and better purchasing policies. He chides both the Democrats and GOP for taking too long to “deal with” the solvency of Social Security.

With the spotlight on Cruz, the Texas Senator explained his advocacy for allowing younger workers to put some of their Social Security taxes into a 401 (k) accounts even with the

As president, Cruz pledges that he will not make any changes to Social Security that will impact anyone at or near retirement. “Every benefit will be protected to the letter,” he says, “But for younger workers, we need to change the rate of growth of benefits so it matches inflation instead of exceeding inflation.”

Finally, CNN moderator Bash, reminded Kasich of his position of cutting retirement payments. The Ohio Governor told a New Hampshire voter: “Get over cuts to Social Security benefits,” he says.

Kasich brought up his 1999 plan to save Social Security by allowing young people to have private retirement accounts. During a light hearted moment, Kasich quipped this memorable quote: “Now there are more 18-year-olds who believe they have a better chance of seeing a UFO than a Social Security check and we have a lot of seniors who are very nervous.”

Kasich’s plan to save Social Security is quite simple. “If you’ve had wealth throughout your lifetime, when the time comes to be on Social Security, you’ll still get it. It will just simply be less. And for those people who depend on that Social Security, they’ll get their full benefit. That’s the way it will work. And we don’t have to monkey around with the retirement age. And how do I know that? I’ve done all this before,” he told millions watching the two hour debate.

The writing is on the wall. 2016 GOP candidates for president, except Trump, look to make changes to Social Security to ratchet up the program’s solvency. Those calling for change say they won’t increase program eligibility, cut benefits or privatize the program, to impact aging baby boomers nearing retirement or for current Social Security recipients.

While differing on their political strategies, Democratic presidential contenders — former Secretary of State and New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, — seek to strengthen and expand Social Security.

Generation’s X, Y and Z might will consider looking closely at Democratic and Republican presidential candidate positions on fixing Social Security. November’s winner might just tinker with your future retirement program or slash benefits, ultimately impacting how you will financially survive in your retirement years.