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.

Using Savings from Drug Pricing Reform to Expand Medicare

Published in RINewsToday on June 7, 2021

Ahead of President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28 and as the Democratic administration considers policies to slash rising drug costs, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 65-page report finding that the U.S. pays more than two to four times higher prices for a selected sample of 20 single source, brand name drugs than Australia, Canada and France. The latest GAO report, commissioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), found that Americans, suffering from blood clots, bronchitis, emphysema and Hepatitis C, were paying more for life-saving treatments than patients in these industrialized countries. 

“This important GAO study confirms what we all already know: the pharmaceutical industry is ripping off the American people,” said Sen. Sanders in a statement announcing the March 29th release of the GAO report, “Prescription Drugs: US Prices for Selected Brand Drugs Were Higher on Average Than Prices in Australia, Canada and France.”

“The time is long overdue for the United States to do what every major country on earth does: negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies to lower the outrageous price of prescription drugs. I would urge the president to put this proposal in the American Families Plan and use the savings to expand and improve Medicare for older Americans. We can no longer tolerate the American people paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” says the Vermont Senator who chairs the Senate’s Budget Committee.

U.S. Paying Outrageous Drug Prices

The GAO study found that in 2020, the U.S. paid 4.36 times more than France, 4.25 times more than Australia and 2.82 times more than Canada for the selected drugs, which represent a sample of the drugs with the highest Medicare Part D expenditures and use. The researchers noted that the publicly available data for the comparison countries were gross prices that did not reflect potential discounts. As a result, the actual differences between U.S. prices and those of the other countries were likely much larger than GAO estimates.

According to the GAO report, while France and Australia operate universal, publicly funded health systems that include prescription drug coverage, both Canada and the U.S. have a significant number of people who do not have prescription drug coverage. But even when comparing the full cash retail prices of selected drugs, the prices quoted to individuals without prescription drug coverage, GAO found that prices were two to eight times higher in the U.S. than the same drugs from pharmacies in Canada. 

For instance, GAO found that the cash price of Epclusa (28 tablets), which treats Hepatitis C, or an infection that attacks the liver, is $36,743 in the U.S. but $17,023.63 in Canada. The cash price of Harvoni (28 tablets), which also treats Hepatitis C, is $46,570.33 in the U.S. but $19,084.54 in Canada. In another example, GAO cited that the cash price of Incruse Ellipta Inhalation Powder (30 inhalations), which treats chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a group of lung diseases which block airflow and make it difficult to breath, is $411.33 in the U.S. but $53.31 in Canada.

Because France and Australia have universal health systems that cover prescription drugs, Australians would pay up to a $28.09 copay for a month supply of these medicines, while patients in France would pay anywhere from $0 to $34.03 for the drugs. The maximum copay that high income seniors with prescription drug coverage in Ontario, Canada would pay for the drugs is $4.67.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

On April 23, 48, organizations, led by Indivisible, Social Security Works and Public Citizen, called on Biden to include bold drug pricing reforms in American Families Plan to expand Medicare, and the result of a new polls supports this legislative action. 

Drug pricing reform will produce upward of $450 billion in savings over 10 years, note the organizations, urging Biden to use these savings to reinvest in Medicare. The call for adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare, lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 and creating an out-of-pocket cap for medical expenses.

Alongside the letter, the organizations released the findings of a new poll from Data for Progress, widespread public support across party lines for expanding and improving Medicare. The poll’s findings noted that 86% of Americans, including 82% of Republicans, support adding dental, hearing and vision benefits to Medicare. It also found that three-quarters of Democrats, a majority of independents, and nearly half of Republicans support lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55. 

“Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices down saves money for the federal government, which is the largest buyer of prescription drugs in the world,” said Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works. “We must pump those savings back into Medicare to expand eligibility and add benefits that equalize Medicare with private insurance,” he says.

“Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50, capping out-of-pocket costs, and expanding benefits to include dental, hearing, and vision would improve access to care for millions of Americans. Far too many Americans have lost their insurance or put off needed care due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Eagan Kemp, Health Care Policy Advocate for Public Citizen. “The Biden Administration and Congress have a chance to deliver important progress at a crucial time,” he says.

Adds Mary Small, Legislative Director for Indivisible, “With the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic still being felt in our communities, now is a crucial moment to expand public health care coverage and deliver savings on prescription drug prices to the American people. Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 will be an essential step toward reducing the racial health inequities by increasing coverage to communities of color and low-income folks.”  She adds, “Allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and then reinvesting those savings back into the program to expand services further strengthens our path toward universal coverage for all.” 

Last Thoughts

Garnering applause, Biden put high drug costs on his Administration’s radar screen at his recent address before Congress. “Let’s give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices. It won’t just help people on Medicare. It will lower prescription drug costs for everyone,” said the 46th President of the United States. “We’ve talked about it long enough. Democrats and Republicans, let’s get it done this year,” he said.

But actions speak louder than words, say Washington Insiders.  They note that Biden’s American Families Plan, did not include any proposal to slash pharmaceutical costs or lower the Medicare eligibility age. Is it possible for Biden to lower the drug prices in the United States, making the prices more comparable to other industrialized countries and to even expand Medicare, in the face of fierce opposition from Republicans, moderate Senate Democrats and pharmaceutical companies?  

According to the latest KFF Health Tracking Poll released June 3, 2021, the findings indicate that “nearly nine in 10 (88%) favor allowing the federal government to negotiate for lower prices on medications, including three-fourths (77%) of Republicans, nine in 10 independents (89%) and 96% of Democrats.” However, support dwindles “when the public hears argument made by pharmaceutical companies that it could lead to less research and development for new drugs, or that access to newer prescriptions could be limited,” say the researchers.

Will political pressure sway a divided Congress before the upcoming midterm elections to hammer out a bipartisan solution to put the brakes to the nation’s skyrocketing drug costs and to provide more American’s affordable health care through an expanded Medicare program. Its wait and see.

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.