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.

Aging Report is “Rhode Map” for Change

Published on June 27, 2016 in Pawtucket Times

Next year look for the policy debate in the Rhode Island General Assembly to heat with Governor Dan McKee’s Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC) release of a sixty page report in June documenting the sky rocketing growth of the state’s older population and identifying strategies to allow these individuals to age in place and stay in their communities.

The Aging in Community Subcommittee was mandated by the enactment of the Aging in Community Act of 2014, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Mary Ellen Goodwin and Representatives Christopher Blazejewski and Eileen Naughton. The Subcommittee, chaired by Maureen Maigret, Vice Chair of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council, and former Director of the Division of Elderly Affairs, staff from Rhode Island College, Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, representatives from state agencies, members of the senior community, and senior service providers.

According to Maigret, it has taken almost 18 months to gather data, host focus groups and to write the “Aging in Community” report. The report provides demographic data snapshot on the state’s older population and also inventories current services and resources. It also identifies challenges faced by older Rhode Islanders and recommends strategies to promote successful aging in community in these nine issue areas.

Maigret believes that this report may take the most comprehensive look at what aging programs and services are available to assist older Rhode Islanders age in place in their communities and it identifies what programs and services are lacking. “The State Plan on Aging does have some data and actions planned but does not comprehensively cover all the domains covered in the “Aging in Community” report,” she says.

A Demographic Snap Shot

In 2010, the report notes that over 152,000 Rhode Islanders were age 65, predicting that this number will sky rocket to 247,000 in 2030. By 2025, Rhode Island will be considered to be a “Super Aging” state where 20 percent of its population will be over age 65. The report noted that two years ago the population of New Shoreham, Little Compton, North Smithfield, North Providence and Tiverton had already reached “Super Aging” status.

The report added that 42 percent of over age 65 household incomes amounted to less than $30,000. Only 49 percent of the retirees have non Social Security retirement income. Fifty two percent of the older renters and 39 percent of the home owners were financially burdened with covering housing costs. Poverty levels for older Rhode Islander vary, from 7 percent in Bristol County to 18 percent in Providence County.

The LTCCC report notes that even with lower incomes older Rhode Islanders have a major impact on the state’s economy. They bring in over $2.9 billion dollars from Social Security pensions and $281 million in taxes into the state’s economy. Older workers account for 33,750 jobs throughout all job sectors.

Rhode Island’s retirees provide an estimated $ 149 million by volunteering and an estimated $ 2 billion in providing caregiving services to family and friends.

A Spotlight on Priority Recommendations

The Subcommittee’s findings were the result of interviews held with aging service providers, an examination of age-friendly best practices in other states and ten focus groups conducted with older Rhode Islander from across the state.

The focus groups attendees gave the Subcommittee valuable information. They stressed that Senior Centers were “highly valued.” Many expressed financial concerns for their current situation and into the future. Attendees were very concerned about the lack of transportation and lack of affordable housing. State customer service employees were viewed by many as “unfriendly.”

Dozens of strategies were listed in the LTCCC report for state policy makers to consider to better assist older Rhode Islanders to successfully age in their community in these nine issue areas: Information and Communication, Community Engagement, Transportation, Economic Security, Food Security and Nutrition, Housing, Supports at Home, Healthcare Access and Open Spaces/Public Buildings

The LTCCC report identifies priority strategies including the restoring of senior center funding based on a population-based formula and continuing RIPTA’s no-fare bus pass program for low income seniors and persons with disabilities. It also calls for increase payments for homecare and for restoring state funding for Elder Respite.

Maigret says that creating a coalition of aging groups to “build an age-friendly Rhode Island” is the next step to take. Businesses can also become “age friendly” and better understand the economic value of older Rhode Islanders bring to the state and its educational institutions, she says.

Political Will Required to Implement LTCCC Report Strategies

There must be a political will to implement the strategies of the LTCCC report, says Maigret, starting with the state’s top elected official. “Governor Raimondo’s proposed budget had added $600,000 in funding for senior centers but the Rhode Island General Assembly removed it,” she said, noting that the decrease in funding got caught up in the negativity surrounding Community Service grants. “We were fortunate the 2017 budget will still have $400,000 in funding for senior centers,” she says.

“Rhode Island’s older adult population contributes a great deal socially, economically, and intellectually to our communities. Ensuring that those Rhode Islanders who desire to age-in-place are able to do so only enriches our society,” said Governor Raimondo. “I’m pleased that Director Fogarty, and members of his senior staff, serve and work with the Long Term Care Coordinating Council and the Subcommittee on Aging in Community. The insight they gain from service with these committees helps to shape State policy and programs related to services for seniors.

“I applaud the members of the Subcommittee for their dedication to creating a clear, comprehensive report on aging that can be a catalyst for change in our state. Their work recognizes that Rhode Island’s older population is growing dramatically and that we must direct public policy to help them remain active and in their homes,” said Lt. Governor McKee. I look forward to supporting the strategies detailed in the Subcommittee’s report to help build stronger, healthier communities for all Rhode Islanders.”

Finally, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, also says that the Subcommittee report’s recommendations will also be studied closely next legislative session. “I will be reviewing the findings of the report in greater detail and I will confer with Representatives Chris Blazejewski and Eileen Naughton, who sponsored and advocated for the Aging in Community Act of 2014. Our older population in Rhode Island is a growing one and it is important that we continue to listen to their needs and be responsive. I commend the work of the subcommittee, as well as all those who participated in the focus groups. I would anticipate that any policy and financial recommendations will be fully analyzed by the members of the General Assembly in the 2017 session.”

The LTCCC’s “Aging in Community” report gives our policy makers a road map in reconfiguring the state’s fragmented aging programs and services. With the Governor, House Speaker and Senate President on board, we might just see legislative changes in the next years that might just be what we need to keep people at home and active in their community. Lawmakers must not act penny-wise and pound foolish when considering legislative fixes.

Both the executive summary and the full Subcommittee “Aging in Community” report are available on the Lieutenant Governor’s website at: http://www.ltgov.ri.gov and the general assembly website at: http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/Pages/Reports.aspx.