Putting the Brakes on Skyrocketing Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 25, 2019

A few days ago, AARP Rhode Island released new state specific data detailing the impact of high prescription drug prices for Ocean State residents, specifically those living with cancer, prediabetes or diabetes, and heart disease. The Washington-based AARP unveiled the infographic at the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) annual conference as part of AARP’s nationwide Stop Rx Greed campaign to lower drug prices for all Americans.

“While prescription drug prices continue skyrocketing, Americans are being forced to choose between filling life-saving medications or paying rent and buying food,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell in an August 21 statement announcing the release of the drug cost data. “So far in 2019, 29 states have passed 46 new laws to rein in drug prices. It’s critical that state and federal lawmakers continue this momentum to stop Rx greed.” says Connell.

Across the nation, 28 percent of consumers ages 19 to 64, say they are being forced to choose between filling costly life-saving prescriptions and paying their rent, buying food and affording other critical essentials, according to AARP research. In 2016, 25 percent of Rhode Islanders stopped taking a prescription drug prescribed by their health care provider due to cost.

The AARP Rhode Island-specific Infographic zeros in on three commonly used prescriptions to treat cancer, diabetes and heart disease to detail the spiraling increases in drug costs.

Between 2012 and 2017, the retail price of Revlimid, used to treat cancer, increased from $147,413 per year to $247,496 per year. In Rhode Island, 112,403 people are living with cancer.

Lantus, a form of insulin used to treat diabetes, increased from $2,907 per year to $4,702 per year. There are 82,318 people with diabetes in Rhode Island.

Finally, Aggrenox, a heart disease medication, increased from $3,030 per year to $5,930 per year. In Rhode Island, 31, 756 people have heart disease.

Specialty Drug Prices Continue 12-Year Surge

The AARP-state specific infographic released this month follows on the heels of an earlier AARP Public Policy Institute report released in June, reporting that the prices of widely used specialty prescription drugs grew more than three times faster than general inflation in 2017.

The researchers found that the average annual price for a single specialty drug used on a chronic basis is now nearly $79,000, compared to $27,824 in 2006.

Specialty drugs often require special administration and handling and are used to treat conditions that often affect older populations, including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.

According to the findings of the AARP report, the average annual cost for a single specialty drug was almost $20,000 more than the median U.S. household income ($60,336), more than three times the median income for beneficiaries ($26,200, and over four-and-a-half times higher than the average Social Security retirement benefit ($26,200).

The report also found that the average annual p rice for one specialty medication would have been $29,843 in 2017 – almost $50,000 lower – if the retail price changes for these products had been limited to general inflation between 2006 and 2017.

“Prescription drugs are not affordable when their prices exceed the patient’s entire income,” said Debra Whitman, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer. Unfortunately, drug prices seem to be in a never-ending race to the top, leaving more and more people unable to afford the medications they need,” she says.

The researchers also noted that revlimid, used to treat cancer, had the highest annual price surge of the 30 top selling specialty drugs at 21.4 percent, going from $203,928 in 2016 to $247,497 in 2017. Revatio, a pulmonary hypertension medication, had the single highest retail price increase (48 percent) among the 97 most widely used specialty drugs.

“Specialty drugs account for the majority of the prescription drugs that were approved by the FDA in recent years,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Research at AARP Policy Institute. “Given the remarkably high prices associated with such products, it is imperative that policymakers finally enact meaningful changes that target drug manufacturers’ pricing behavior,” she said.

Putting the Brakes to Skyrocketing Drug Costs

Last March, AARP launched its ‘Stop Rx Greed Campaign’ to find Federal and State solutions to slash skyrocketing drug prices. The goal of AARP’s sustained campaign is to help drive down drug prices for all Americans by advocating for a variety of legislative, executive, and regulatory actions at both the federal and state level.

“Americans are paying the highest prescription drug prices in the world,” said Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond, in a statement kicking off this advocacy initiative. “It’s time for pharmaceutical companies to stop deflecting blame and acknowledge that the root cause is the price they set for their products,” she says.

The Stop Rx Greed campaign will include national television, radio and digital ads, editorial content, emails to members, social media posts, ongoing advocacy and grassroots activity in D.C. and the states, and a petition calling on Congress and the Administration to take action now.

As part of the campaign, AARP is actively supporting a number of policy solutions at the national and state level to help lower drug prices. The aging advocacy group supports allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices and states to negotiate lower prices with drug companies. AARP also calls for giving state Attorneys General authority to crack down on outrageous price increases and clamping down on pay-for-delay and other loopholes that keep
lower cost generic drugs off the market. Finally, AARP endorses capping prescription drug out-of-pocket costs and preserving state pharmacy assistance programs.

Congress is now considering legislation to put the brakes on rising pharmaceutical calls. As the 2020 election approaches the GOP-controlled Senate must work across the aisle with Senate Democrats to craft and pass bipartisan legislation to lower drug costs. It’s time for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who vows to block any Democratic priories coming out of the Democratic-controlled Houses to the Senate, to put Senate companion bills on the floor for a vote. It’s time for the Kentucky Senator to put the needs of older Americans first, rather than political wins.

For more details about AARP’s Stop Rx Greed initiative, go to http://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/prescription-drugs/.