Attacking Rising Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 7, 2019

The Washington, DC-based AARP timed the release of its latest Rx Price Watch report as the House Energy Commerce Committee marked up and passed a dozen bills just days ago, six that would lower prescription drug costs. The legislative proposals now go to the House floor for consideration.

AARP’s new report, a continuation of a series that has been tracking price changes for widely used prescription drugs since 2004, was circulated to House Committee members before their markup and vote and its findings sent a message to the lawmakers that they hear from their older constituents, that is the costs of pharmaceutical drugs is skyrocketing, making it difficult to fill needed prescriptions.

Poll after poll findings reflect the concerns of seniors about their ability to pay for prescribed medications. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last month, 79 percent of survey respondents view drug prices to be “unreasonable,” while just 17 percent found the costs to be “reasonable.” Twenty-four percent of these respondents found it difficult to pay the costs of their prescription drugs.

Generic Drugs Can Save Dollars

According to the new AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) report, by Leigh Purvis and Dr. Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, the average annual cost of therapy for one widely used brand-name prescription drug in 2017 was over 18 times higher than the cost of therapy for one generic drug. The cost for a generic medication used on a chronic basis averaged $365 per year. In contrast, the average annual cost for a brand-name prescription drug was $6,798. But, four years earlier the price differential between these same market baskets was substantially smaller ($4,308 verses $751 respectively).

“Generics account for nearly nine out of every 10 prescriptions filled in the U.S. but represent less than a quarter of the country’s drug spending,” said Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP, in a statement released with the PPI’s 28 page report “These results highlight the importance of eliminating anticompetitive behavior by brand-name drug companies so that we get more lower-priced generic drugs on the market,” says Whitman.

AARP’s PPI report, entitled “Trends in Retail Prices of Generic Prescription Drugs Widely Used by Older Americans,” found that retail prices for 390 generic prescription drugs commonly used by older adults, including Medicare beneficiaries, decreased by an average of 9.3 percent in 2017, compared to the general inflation rate of 2.1 percent. The decline follows two consecutive years of substantial generic drug price decreases; the previous two consecutive years saw increases in generic drug prices. All but three of the 390 generic prescription drugs analyzed in AARP’s report had a retail price change in 2017. While prices for 297 (76 percent) drug products decreased, 90 (23 percent) products had price increases.
Six commonly used generic drug products had retail price increases of greater than 70 percent, including a nearly 200 percent increase for sertraline HCL, an antidepressant, finds the AARP.

AARP’s PPI report found that with older adults taking an average of 4.5 prescription drugs every month, those using generic prescription drugs were likely to have an average annual retail cost of $1,642 in 2017.

“The gap between average annual brand-name and generic drug prices has increased dramatically—brand name drug prices were six times higher than generic drug prices in 2013 but more than 18 times higher in 2017,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “As long as brand name drug prices continue to skyrocket, the value of prohibiting brand name drug company practices that slow or prevent competition from generic and biosimilar drugs cannot be overstated.”

AARP Pushes for Passage of Bills to Lower Drug Costs

Before the Committee on Energy and Commerce vote on April 3, in correspondence AARP urged Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-Ore) to enact two bills (along with four other proposals) being considered at the morning markup session. These legislative proposals would lower prescription drug costs and had previously been approved by the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee.

In the correspondence, AARP’s Nancy A. LeaMond, Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, pushed for passage of H.R., 1499. the “Protecting Consumer Access to Generic Drugs Act of 2019.” introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). This proposal would make it illegal for brand-name and generic drug manufacturers to enter into agreements in which the brand-name drug manufacturer pays the generic manufacturer to keep a generic equivalent off the market. The bill was passed by voice vote.

LeaMond also supported H.R., 965, the “Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples (CREATES) Act of 2019,” introduced by Reps. David Cicilline (D-RI), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Doug Collins (R-GA), Peter Welch (D-VT), and David McKinley (R-WV). The proposal would establish a process by which generic manufacturers could obtain sufficient quantities of brand drug samples for testing thereby deterring gaming of safety protocols that brand manufacturers use to delay or impede generic entry. The bill passed by a bipartisan vote of 51-0.

At the markup, Pallone and Walden were able to work out philosophical differences on H.R. 1499 and H.R. 965. The two lawmakers also hammered out a compromise on H.R. 1503, the “Organize Book Transparency Act of 2019,” that would ensure that the Orange book, which identifies drug products approved on the basis of safety and effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration, is accurate and up-to-date.

Washington Insiders say that Democratic control of the House will ensure the passage of these legislative proposals on the House floor and the bipartisan vote on the CREATES Act in the lower chamber creates an opportunity for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to successfully push his CREATES Act companion measure in the Senate.

Grassley says the broad, bipartisan action by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to advance the CREATES Act is a major win for consumers. “I look forward to advancing this bill because it will cut down on abuses in the system that keep prices high for patients. I’m also pleased that the committee advanced a bill to address pay-for-delay schemes. Although that bill is not identical to the bill I’ve sponsored in the Senate, the bill’s movement shows that the committee is serious about addressing the pay-for-delay problem,” says the Senator.

As They See It…

AARP’s LeaMond, says “Brand-name drug companies want to stifle generic competition to protect their monopolies and profits. AARP believes that eliminating these deliberate anticompetitive behaviors will result in a more robust generic drug market and greater savings for both patients and taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that legislation such as the CREATES Act could save taxpayers more than $3 billion over a decade, and the Federal Trade Commission estimated pay-for-delay deals cost consumers and taxpayers $3.5 billion a year.

“We have long supported the CREATES Act and banning pay-for-delay agreements, and are heartened that Congress is acting to improve access to generic drugs. These bills will promote competition driving down costs for seniors,” says Lisa Swirsky, Senior Policy Analyst, at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“Congressman Cicilline has been a leader in our caucus for putting prescription drug prices at the front of our agenda. Moving generics to market faster is an important step to lower prescription drug costs for every American,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “House Democrats have made it a top priority to lower Americans’ health costs by reducing the price of prescription drugs, and these bipartisan bills show we mean to deliver,” she says.

Dems Listening to Calls to Strengthen and Expand Social Security, Medicare

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 23, 2018

The political clock is ticking…The midterm elections are less than 50 days away and just days ago, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP released a poll of age 50 and older Ohio voters who say they are especially concerned about their health care and personal financial issues.

The Politico-AARP poll, conducted by Morning Consult, surveyed 1,592 registered voters in Ohio from September 2 to 11, 2018 with a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points. For voters 50 and older, the poll surveyed 841 registered voters and has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Don’t Touch Our Social Security, Medicare”

According to the newly released AARP-Politico poll findings, the older voters identified key issues that will influence how they will cast their vote in November at the polls. The respondents viewed health care (81 percent) the most important campaign issue followed by Social Security (80 percent) and Medicare (76 percent) and prescription drugs (65 percent). But, a strong majority (74 percent) support preserving the state’s Medicaid expansion, says the pollsters. .

“With less than 50 days to go before Election Day, candidates in Ohio would be wise to listen to the state’s most powerful voting group: 50-plus voters,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer in a statement releasing the polls findings. “History shows older voters turn out in force in every election, and AARP is making sure they are energized and know where candidates stand on the issues.”

AARP is partnering with Politico to create a series titled “The Deciders,” (www.politico.com/magazine/thedeciders) that integrates original polling focused on 50-plus voters, reporting, data analysis and cutting-edge data visualization tools built by Politico’s specialized interactive team. The third edition in the series is focused on Ohio, a key election battleground state. Other recent polls surveyed voters in Arizona and Florida.

The AARP-Political Ohio poll findings say that 74 percent of age 50-plus voters “strongly support” (42 percent) or “somewhat support” (32 percent) preserving Ohio’s Medicaid expansion which extended Medicaid eligibility for low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act.

Ninety one percent of the older voter respondents say they are “very concerned” (55 percent) or “somewhat concerned” (36 percent) about their utility bills increasing. In addition, 69 percent of these respondents “strongly support” (27 percent) or “somewhat support” (42 percent) creating an Ohio retirement savings plan.

The AARP-Political poll also noted that 74 percent of 50-plus voters say opioid addiction is “a very serious problem” in the state right now, and 61 percent say the government is not doing enough to address it. And, 70 percent of the older voters “strongly agree” that jobs and the economy are major issues this election season. Only one in five (23 percent) feel “well-prepared” to get and keep a job, says the researchers.

Finally, nearly half (46 percent) of 50-plus voters think government is unprepared to prevent a cyber-attack on public infrastructure.

Democrats Zero in on Senior Issues

While poll after poll of older voters sends the message “Don’t touch my Social Security or Medicare” the GOP turns a deaf ear, but the Democrats listen. Following President Donald Trump’s claim that Democrats are trying to cut Social Security at a campaign rally in Montana, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.), Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) on September 13, announced the bicameral Expand Social Security Caucus, over 150 members, including 18 Senators.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) David Cicilline (D-RI) James Langevin (D-RI) are members of the newly formed Expand Social Security Caucus.

Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works, an advocacy nonprofit group pushing for expanding Social Security, emceed the press conference and co-authored an opinion piece in The Hill celebrating the caucus launch.

Lawson noted, “We have members in the caucus from all corners of the country, from all parts of the Democratic Party. We’re waiting on some Republicans who might join, but they’ll be welcome when they realize that the American people are united in calling for an expansion of Social Security.”

The mission of this new congressional caucus is to push for the expansion of Social Security, one of the most popular and successful government programs. Last year alone, Social Security lifted 22 million Americans, including more than 15 million seniors, out of poverty. Before Social Security, nearly half of the nation’s seniors were living in poverty, says a caucus press release.

The caucus will ensure that expanding Social Security is a key part of the Democratic agenda before the midterm elections and next year and beyond. Over a dozen bills have already been introduced in the Senate and House to expand Social Security. With the caucus now playing a key role in expanding and strengthening Social Security, look for more bills to be introduced next Congress.

At the official unveiling of the new Congressional caucus, Sanders said, “We are here today to say very loudly and very clearly that at a time when millions of seniors are trying to survive on $12,000 or $13,000 a year, our job is not to cut Social Security. Our job is to expand Social Security so that everyone in America can retire with dignity and respect.” T

“Social Security is a lifeline for seniors and Americans with disabilities. We won’t let it be cut by one cent – and instead we will fight to expand it,” Co-chair Warren said. “The rich and powerful have rigged our economy to make themselves richer, while working families face a massive retirement crisis. If this government really works for the people, it should protect and expand Social Security.”

“A number of bills have been introduced in the Senate and House to expand Social Security, including legislation written by Sanders last year to lift the cap on taxable income that goes into Social Security, requiring the wealthiest Americans – those who make over $250,000 a year – to pay their fair share of Social Security taxes. That bill would increase Social Security benefits and extend the program’s solvency for the next 60 years.

Joining the caucus leadership Thursday were Social Security Works, the Alliance for Retired Americans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Latinos for a Secure Retirement, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the American Federation of Government Employees, the Arc of the United States, the Center for Responsible Lending and Global Policy Solutions.

With the midterm elections looming, the progressive and centralists of the Democratic party must put aside their differences to work together to support Democratic Congressional candidates who can win. One unifying political issue may well be supporting the expansion and strengthening of Social Security, Medicare and ensuring that Americans can be covered by affordable health insurance. Stay tuned.

Time to Change how Social Security Calculates ‘COLA’

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 23, 2016

On Tuesday, September 18, the U.S. Social Security Administration announced that the nation’s 65 million Social Security beneficiaries will be automatically be paid a minuscule 0.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their monthly checks in 2017. The average monthly Social Security benefit next year will be $1,360, $5 more than now.

According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. That’s chump change, not a lot of money for Rhode Island retirees to buy groceries, gas, or even catch up on their bills.

The federal agency detailed other changes that we can expect, too. Beginning in 2017, the amount of your earnings subject to the Social Security tax increases from $118,500 to $127,200. It’s estimated that this tax change impacts about 12 million of the 173 million people who pay into the retirement system.

Next year’s Social Security COLA increase is the smallest in a decade and comes after no increase in 2016 (zero increases also occurred in 2010 and 2011). Seventy percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected by a hold-harmless rule, which keeps Social Security benefit payments from decreasing because of increased Medicare Part B premiums. However, 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries (including high wage earners, those enrolled in Medicare and not yet receiving Social Security, and newly enrolled in Medicare) could see cost increases in their Medicare Part B premiums that cover their visits to doctors and hospitals. The increased premium costs will be deducted directly from their Social Security check.

Chump Change COLA Won’t Pay Bills

Responding to the federal government’s disappointing COLA announcement, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, whose Washington, DC aging group represents 37 million members, charges in a statement that one major domestic issue ignored by presidential debate moderators and one that demands attention from candidates is the future of Social Security.

“Over the last five years, Social Security COLA’s have remained small or nonexistent at 1,7 percent or lower, even though every cent can matter to beneficiaries and their families. After last year’s zero COLA, this year’s announcement doesn’t offer much help to the millions of families who depend on their Social Security benefits. As prescription prices skyrocket and Medicare premiums and other health costs increase, many older Americans have understandable concerns. Along with many groups, AARP has also asked Congress to ensure that Medicare premiums and deductibles don’t skyrocket next year,” says Jenkins.

Adds Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “No one can say with a straight face that providing the average senior with an additional four dollars a month will come even close to covering the true cost of living that retirees face. The average senior spends more than $5,000 a year on healthcare costs alone. A $4 Social Security COLA doesn’t even make a dent in covering rising costs for seniors.”

Richtman asserts that next year’s tiny COLA increase only continues the trend of historically low cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. “Over the past eight years, the current COLA formula has led to average increases of just over 1%, with three of those years seeing no increase at all. For the average senior, the 2017 COLA will mean an extra $4.00 per month which would barely cover the average cost of one Lipitor pill, a prescription drug frequently prescribed to seniors,” he says.

Richtman notes, “I’ve asked seniors at town hall meetings around the country how many of them think the COLA represents their true cost of living — laughter is always the response. We should move to a COLA formula that takes a more accurate measure of seniors’ expenses, which is a CPI for the elderly. The CPI-E has been in the experimental phase since 1982. It’s time to finish the job by fully funding the development of a more accurate COLA formula.”

Congress Must Legislatively Fix COLA Formula

In media releases, Rhode Island lawmakers call for tweaking how Social Security calculates Social Security COLAs.

Democratic U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who sits on the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, calls next year’s Social Security COLA increase an “insult.” He says, “For the fifth year in a row, Washington’s outdated formula has resulted in zero or next to zero cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits. For the fifth year in a row, Rhode Island seniors will have to stretch their budgets to cover the rising cost of the basics, like food, housing, bills, and prescriptions. They didn’t bargain for this when they paid into Social Security over a lifetime of hard work. Congress needs to change the way we calculate Social Security COLAs.”

Adds, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), “This is completely unacceptable. The method for calculating cost of living adjustments is completely broken and fails to reflect the costs of gods and services seniors buy in Rhode Island and across the country.”
The Rhode Island Congressman calls for the Republican House Leadership to seriously consider pending legislation that will ensure that cost of living adjustments reflect the goods and services Rhode Island seniors actually buy. “Speaker Ryan should immediately bring the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act to the floor so we can replace this outdated method for calculating cost of living adjustments with a model that actually meets the needs of Rhode Island seniors,” said Cicilline.

During the last Congress, the Senate and House controlled GOP have consistently kept legislative proposals from being considered that were crafted to bring needed reforms to the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs. A newly elected Democratic President and a Congress controlled by Democrats might just be the political fix necessary to finally do the job that is ensuring the financial long-term solvency of these two domestic entitlement programs