State Lawmakers to Tackle High Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 16, 2020

The Washington, DC-based AARP began its call for reducing prescription drug prices nationally in the late spring of 2019. At the same time, state legislatures around the country began taking up legislation. However, in Rhode Island, where the legislature meets only once a year, from January to June, it was too late to introduce bill in last year’s session.

AARP’s Elaine Ryan, VP of State Advocacy and Strategy reports: “We’re seeing an unprecedented number of states tackling the problem of high prescription drug prices. About 45 states expect to engage on prescription drug legislation or regulations this year. Right now, AARP is actively engaged in legislation in 25 states to address rising prescription drug prices. A variety of bills are moving through state legislatures, including bills on cost-sharing caps on insulin, price transparency, importation, price gouging, and affordability boards.”

Now, AARP Rhode Island is gearing up its lobbying efforts on Smith Hill this legislative session to put the brakes on rising prescription drug costs.

High Prescription Costs Top AARP Rhode Island’s Issues

State Director Kathleen Connell, of AARP Rhode Island, led the charge against skyrocketing drug costs by taking the group’s “Stop Rx Greed: Cut Drug Prices Now” campaign to four Rhode Island communities. At its AARP RI Community Conversations kickoff event in Warwick on Oct. 15, she called on Congress and the Rhode Island General Assembly to make prescription drugs more affordable a legislative priority. “We pay not only at the pharmacy counter, but through higher insurance premiums, and through the higher taxes we need to pay to fund programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Older Americans are hit especially hard. Medicare Part D enrollees take an average of 4 to 5 prescriptions per month, and their average annual income is around $26,000. One in three Americans has not taken a medication as prescribed because of the cost,” she said.

Connell reported that a recent AARP Rhode Island’s survey revealed that 79 percent of the member respondents called for lowering the price of prescription drugs, considering it the organization’s top priority.

During these events, using state-by-state specific data released last summer by AARP researchers, Connell was able to use Rhode Island data to document an increase in drug costs for seniors, identifying these drugs, the number of Rhode Islanders who need them and how much costs have risen.

Rhode Island’s state specific data revealed that the average annual cost of brand name prescription drug treatment increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2017, while the annual income for Rhode Island increased only 5.6 percent. Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them, says the aging advocacy group, says Connell.

AARP Rhode Island also held Community Conversations in North Providence (Oct. 29), East Providence (Nov. 21) and Newport (Dec. 5). About 80 people attended these events, including in the legislative districts in those communities, along with Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (D-District 4, North Providence, Providence) and House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (D-District 23, Warwick).

AARP Rhode Island Calls for Lower Prescription Drug Costs

On Feb. 5, over 120 people, including state lawmakers, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, and AARP Rhode Island staff and members, gathered in the State Room to attend the AARP Rhode Island Annual Reception. The event would become the backdrop to announce the Rhode Island Senate’s legislative agenda to tackle increasing prescription drug costs, the unveiling of package of eight bills supported by AARP Rhode Island.

At the event, Connell said: “This is an issue we are pounding on and I think you are going to see progress this year on this stellar important issue – Stop Rx Greed. I don’t need to go through the list of hardships suffered as these prices escalate way beyond reason. And we know this can’t continue the way it is. It’s probably not going to be a silver bullet that will solves this, but a lot of lot more work of the kind you have seen to make this iceberg move.”

Senate President Ruggerio along with 14 Senators from his chamber came to announce their support of the AARP sponsored legislation that would provide a pathway to import less-costly drugs from Canada, increase more market transparency, raise senior’s awareness around price changes and limit patients’ share of the costs.

House Majority Leader Shekarchi, came to the legislative reception with 20 House lawmakers, to share their concern about the lack of affordability of prescription. Shekarchi personally knows about high drug costs. “I am a Type II Diabetic and I have a lot of prescriptions. I feel the pain because I pay $30 a pill with the copay. I know what it costs and it is ridiculous,” he says.

“Patients deserve to know what drugs will cost, how they can pay for them in a fair and reasonable way, and how they can take advantage of any or all opportunities to save on those costs,” said Shekarchi, stressing that “people living on fixed incomes should not have to skimp between doing what is essential in buying prescription drugs, or food or housing.”

Shekarchi noted that he has already put in legislation with House colleagues, calling for Rhode Island’s insurers to completely cover the cost of copays for epinephrine injectors, or EpiPens. The bill would help reduce the high cost of the injectors, which has prevented some people with allergies from obtaining the life-saving device. The Warwick lawmaker also cosponsored a bill to create a prescription drug affordability board to protect Rhode Islanders from the high costs of prescription drug products.

Shekarchi concluded, by announcing that House lawmakers will shortly join the Senate in introducing AARP’s package of legislation (from five up to eight bills).

In a statement announcing the introduction of Senate bills to lower prescription drug costs, Ruggerio said: “Rhode Island’s population is one of the oldest in the nation, and the high prices consumers pay for prescriptions have a significant impact on us. Most older Rhode Islanders have limited means, and the high costs mean many people are cutting back on essentials of living or taking less than their prescribed amount of expensive drugs. The pharmaceutical industry is not going to address this on its own, so it’s up to the state and federal governments to take action.”

Tackling the High Cost of Prescription Drugs

After AARP Rhode Island’s Annual Legislative Reception, the following legislative proposals were thrown into the legislative hopper that day and companion measures have now been introduced in the House.

Senate legislative proposals included:

A bill limiting changes to a health plan’s drug formulary — its list of covered drugs — to protect consumers. Sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth A. Crowley (D-District 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket), this legislation (S 2324) would generally limit plans to modifying formularies at renewal time with 60 days’ notice and require that modification be identical among all substantially identical benefit plans.

Legislation (S 2319) sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D-District 29, Warwick) to cap out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drugs at the federal limits for high-deductible health plans, currently $1,400 for individual plans and $2,800 for family plans.

A bill (S 2317) sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-District 1, Providence) to prohibit cost sharing for patients 45 or older for colorectal screening examinations, laboratory tests and colonoscopies covered by health insurance policies or plans.

Legislation (S 2322) sponsored by Sen. Melissa A. Murray (D-District 24, Woonsocket, North Smithfield) to limit the copay for prescription insulin to $50 for a 30-day supply for health plans that provide coverage for insulin.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (D-District 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton) requiring pharmacists to advise patients about less-expensive generic alternatives to their prescriptions or when it would cost them less to pay for their drugs outright instead of using their insurance. The bill (S 2323) would also bar pharmacy benefits managers from imposing gag orders on pharmacists that prevent them from making such disclosures.

A prescription drug transparency act (S 2318), sponsored by Senate President Ruggerio. This bill would requires pharmaceutical drug manufacturers to provide wholesale drug acquisition cost information to the Department of Health and pharmacy benefit managers to provide information related to drug prices, rebates, fees and drug sales to the health insurance commissioner annually. Such transparency would help payers determine whether high prescription costs are justified.

A bill (S 2321) sponsored by Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-District 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Tiverton, Newport) to create a state-administered program to import wholesale prescription drugs from Canada, which has drug safety regulations similar to those of the United States. Such programs are allowed under federal law, with approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Legislation (S 2320) sponsored by Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D-District 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence) to create a prescription drug affordability board tasked with investigating and comprehensively evaluating drug prices for Rhode Islanders and possible ways to reduce them to make them more affordable.

As the 2020 Presidential election looms, Congress and state law makers are very aware that lowering skyrocketing prescription drug costs is a top priority for their older constituents. With more than 250 bills passed by the Democrats in the House (some of these bills would lower prescription drug costs) sitting in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “legislative graveyard,” the Rhode Island General Assembly must take the lead to legislatively fix the problem.

Connell anticipates that there might be more than 15 drug bills in the House and Senate, 10 submitted by AARP. Rhode Island lawmakers must seriously consider these legislative proposals and join the 26 states that have already passed new laws aimed at lowering prices for prescription medications.

General Assembly: It’s Time to Endorse State Alzheimer’s Plan

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 12, 2019

Just days ago, the Alzheimer’s Association-Rhode Island Chapter, along with over 75 volunteers and supporters gathered for the group’s Advocacy Day, in the Governor’s statehouse at the Rhode Island State, warning state lawmakers about the increasing incidence in Alzheimer’s disease and its impending impact on state programs and services. According to the Alzheimer’s Association 2019 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts & Figures report, there are now 23,000 people living with Alzheimer’s and 53,000 Alzheimer’s caregivers in Rhode Island. This number will skyrocket as Rhode Island’s population continues to age; they say.

During the two-hour rally, Alzheimer’s advocates pushed for the passage of H 5569, sponsored by Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Cumberland), and S 310, Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D-Barrington), companion measures that would legislatively endorse the newly released State Alzheimer’s Plan.

House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi also joined in, calling for passage of H. 5189, his legislative proposal that would create a program under the Department of Health and an advisory council to oversee implementation of programming, requiring training for medical professionals, and establishing Alzheimer’s plans in medical facilities. the Senate companion measure is S 223.

Improving Supports for Those Afflicted with Alzheimer’s

Once the Rhode Island General Assembly passes the legislative proposals to endorses the State Alzheimer’s Plan, the state’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s executive board would seek legislative and regulatory changes to carry out its bold set of recommendations for improving supports to those afflicted by Alzheimer’s and other dementias. But this legislation is stalled.
Twenty-three town meetings,45 expert interviews, combined with a survey of 200 Rhode Islanders impacted by Alzheimer’s, enabled Columbia, Maryland-based Splaine Consulting, a nationally recognized health policy firm, to pull together the content for the State Alzheimer’s Plan. More than 30 recommendations are detailed in this 35-page plan to combat the devastating mental disorder which calls for the implementation of three main recommendations.

The updated State Plan provides Rhode Island with the framework to cooperatively address the full range of issues surrounding Alzheimer’s and other dementias. It will be the blueprint that allows us to take unified, targeted action against the disease, says Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee McKee, who serves as chair of the state’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC).

McKee’s LTCCC served as the organizational umbrella for a workgroup, including the Alzheimer’s Association– Rhode Island Chapter, the state’s Division of Elderly Affairs, researchers, advocates, clinicians and caregivers oversaw the development of the newly released State Plan.

“Our updated plan will also position the state, local small businesses and nonprofits to take advantage of federal and other funding opportunities aimed at fighting Alzheimer’s disease,” says McKee.

“Unless we move quickly to address this crisis and find better treatments for those who have it, these costs will grow swiftly in lock step with the numbers of those affected, and Alzheimer’s will increasingly overwhelm our health care system. We must decisively address this epidemic,” says Donna M. McGowan, Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association–Rhode Island Chapter, who came to the May 7 news conference on Smith Hill to put Alzheimer’s on the General Assembly’s policy radar screen.

Taking Bold Actions to Confront Alzheimer’s Epidemic

“State government must address the challenges the disease poses and take bold action to confront this crisis now. Alzheimer’s is a growing crisis for our families and the economy. That’s why we are unrelenting advocates for public policy that advances research and improves access to care and support services,” says McGowan.

“Alzheimer’s disease and its impact on society is not only a growing public health concern, it very well may be the next biggest public health emergency that we as policymakers need to address,” said Rep. Ackerman. “We’ve already begun crafting legislation that will establish a program in Rhode Island to address the disease,” she says.

Rep. Ackerman used the Alzheimer’s news conference as a bully pulpit, calling on hospitals, researchers, medical professionals, state agencies, and state law makers to act swiftly to address the looming public health crisis.

“There are many factors to be considered in the great work ahead of us,” Rep. Ackerman said. “From early detection and diagnosis, to building a workforce capable of handling the unique health care needs of Alzheimer’s patients. This is something that will take a lot of effort and a lot of time. Now is the time to get to work on this,” she notes.

Like Rep. Ackerman, Sen. Coyne called for the General Assembly to endorse the State Alzheimer’s Plan and also supported Shekarchi’s legislative proposal, too. She also promoted a bill that she put in the legislative hopper that would allow spouses to live with their partners in Alzheimer’s special care units. Allowing couples to live together would help maintain patients’ relationships, connections and personal dignity, she said.

Rose Amoros Jones, Director of the Division of Elderly Affairs(DEA), noted that the power to the Alzheimer’s Association – Rhode Island Chapter’s Advocacy Day creates connections to people that can influence policy and shine light on the supports and information that families need. “Connection is a core value at DEA – as is choice, she said.

Sharing personal stories, Melody Drnach, a caregiver residing in Jamestown, talked about the challenges of taking care of her father with dementia. From her personal caregiving experiences, she agrees with the updated plans assessment that Rhode Island is dramatically under-resourced to address today’s needs.

Marc Archambault of South Kingstown, who has been diagnosed with the disease, came, too, talking about his efforts to cope with the devastating disorder.

At press time, both Rep. Shekarchi and Rep. Ackerman’s Alzheimer’s proposals have been heard at the committee level and have been held for further study, some call legislative purgatory.

Alzheimer’s Impacts Almost Everyone

The devastating impact of Alzheimer’s may well touch everyone in Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state. Everyone knows someone who either has Alzheimer’s or dementia or is a care giver to these individuals. It’s time for the Rhode Island General Assembly to endorse the State’s Alzheimer’s Plan especially with no fiscal cost. We need a battle plan now more than ever to effectively deploy the state’s resources to provide better programs and services to those in need and to support caregivers.

Call your state representatives and Senators and urge that H 5569 and S 310 are passed and sent to Governor Gina Raimondo to be signed. For contact information, call Eric Creamer, Director of Public Policy and Media Relations, Alzheimer’s Association – Rhode Island Chapter, (401) 859-2334. Or email ercreamer@alz.org.