RI Senate Tackles High Cost of Prescription Drugs – Herb Weiss

Published in RINewsToday.com on March 15, 2021

In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Governor Dan McKee and the Rhode Island General Assembly move to hammer out their Fiscal Year 2022 budget, Senate lawmakers push a package of eight legislative proposals to put the brakes on skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs.

The Senate resolution (2021-S 0560) sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-District 1, Providence), has already been passed and complements the prescription drug affordability package that will be considered next week that would require health insurers to provide coverage, without cost sharing, for colorectal screenings and follow-up colonoscopies when necessary.

The package of legislation aims to protect Rhode Islanders by limiting copays for insulin, capping out-of-pocket expenses for high deductible plans, requiring health insurers to cover preventive colorectal cancer screening, eliminating clauses hidden in pharmacy contracts that prevent a pharmacist from talking about more affordable options, requiring transparent pricing information, importing wholesale prescription drugs from Canada, and creating a board responsible for evaluating and ensuring drug prices are affordable. 

According to Greg Paré, the state Senate director of communications, this package of legislative proposals was developed in conjunction with AARP during the off session before the 2020 Senate session and first submitted last year, but legislation considered last session was limited due to the pandemic and so it did not pass. The legislation has been resubmitted this year with some small modifications and remains a Senate priority.

Last year, AARP along with 14 groups including, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society Action Network, and Aging in Community, urged lawmakers to pass the package of legislative proposals.  Expect to see some of these groups again call for passage of either the total package or specific bills at a Senate Health and Human Services Committee’s virtual hearing, chaired by Sen. Joshua Miller, on Thursday, at 5:00 p.m. For the hearing’s agenda, go to: For hearing details go to: https://bit.ly/3ezofmJ.

Passage of this legislative package would require action by both the Senate and House. At press time, not all of the Senate bills have companion measures in the House.   

Controlling the Skyrocketing Increase of Prescription Drugs

Here are specifics about the Senate’s prescription drug affordability legislative package that will be considered next week by the Rhode Island’s Senate Health and Human Services Committee:  

Legislation (2021-S-0170 sponsored by Sen. Melissa A. Murray (D–Dist. 24, Woonsocket, North Smithfield), would limit the copay for prescription insulin to $50 for a 30-day supply for health plans that provide coverage for insulin. Additionally, the bill mandates that coverage for prescription insulin would not be subject to a deductible.  

Legislation (2021-S 0381)sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D–Dist. 29, Warwick), would cap out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drugs at the federal minimum dollar amount for high-deductible health plans, currently $1,400 for individual plans and $2,800 for family plans.    

The bill (2021-S-0383), sponsored by Senator Goodwin (D–Dist. 1, Providence), would save lives by requiring health insurers cover preventive colorectal cancer screening in accordance with American Cancer Society (ACA) guidelines. This coverage must be provided without cost-sharing and includes an initial screening and follow-up colonoscopy if screening results are abnormal. The ACA recommends people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45.  

A bill (2021-S -497) sponsored by Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (D–Dist. 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton) would allow consumers to pay less for their prescription drugs by banning gag clauses sometimes found in pharmacy contracts that prevent a pharmacist from talking to a customer about more affordable options.   

This bill (2021-S-0494) would require pharmaceutical drug manufacturers, pharmacy benefit managers, health insurers, and hospitals to disclose certain drug pricing information. Such transparency would help payers determine whether high prescription costs are justified. This bill is sponsored by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (D – Dist. 4, North Providence, Providence).  

This bill (2021-S-0499), sponsored by Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D–Dist. 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton), would 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 rules, with approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

This legislation (2021-S0498) would 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. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D–Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence). 

The bill (2021-S 0496) introduced by Sen. Felag (D-District 12, Bristol, Tiverton, Warren) aims to protect consumers from unexpected changes in their health plan’s formularies (list of covered drugs). Under the legislation, formulary changes can only be made at the time of health plan renewal, if the formulary change is made uniformly across all identical or substantially identical health plans, and if written notice is provided 60 days or more before the change. 

Seniors Hit Hard by High Price of Prescriptions

“The high price of prescriptions is having a severe impact on Rhode Islanders, particularly older residents,” said Ruggerio, noting the state’s population is one of the oldest in the nation.  “Many older Rhode Islanders have limited means, and the high cost of prescriptions means people are 

Ruggerio warns that 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.”

Maureen Maigret, Co-Chair, Long Term Care Coordinating Council, observes that with Medicare paying the tab for costly pharmaceuticals, controlling rising drug costs is a federal issue.  “But this is a big issue to address for those with low and moderate incomes under-insured for prescription drugs,” she says. “I applaud the Senate legislative package aimed at controlling the cost of prescription drugs for Rhode Islanders, says Maigret, who cites the findings of a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that shows one out of four persons take four or more prescription drugs and more than one-third say that have difficulty taking their medication properly due to cost.  “Seniors may fail to get prescriptions filled, resort to pill splitting or skipping doses. Some may end up with costly hospital Emergency Rooms or inpatient visits as health conditions worsen due to the inability to afford their medications, notes Maigret, calling for lawmakers to make necessary prescription drugs affordable for all who need them. Maigret says, “It is time to make necessary prescription drugs available for all who need them.”

“AARP Rhode Island is eager to work with both the Senate and the House of Representatives to pass this important legislation designed to lower prescription drug costs,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “The high cost of drugs leads families – and particularly older Rhode Islanders on fixed and limited incomes — to often make impossible decisions. No one should have to choose between paying rent, providing food for themselves or their family and vital prescription medications that keep them healthy,” she says.

We look forward to working with legislators from across the state to help improve the health and financial stability of everyone by lowering the cost of prescription drugs. We thank Senate President Ruggerio for once again bringing forth this very important legislation,” adds Connell.

It’s mid-March. Lawmakers turn their attention now to passing the state budget.  Even if the Senate passes every bill in the prescription drug affordability package, the lower chamber must pass companion measures for these bills.  When passed, Governor Dan McKee must sign the legislation to become law.  Right now, it’s an uphill battle and Rhode Islanders must call on their state lawmakers to get on board to support bills to reduce the high cost of pharmaceuticals.  It’s the right thing to do. 

Things that You Should Know 

This meeting will be streamed live online through Capitol TV:

http://www.rilegislature.gov/CapTV/Pages/default.aspx

Written testimony is encouraged and can be submitted prior to 2:00 PM on Thursday, March 18, 2021, in order for it to be provided to the members of the committee at the hearing and to be included in the meeting records. Finally, if you are interested in providing verbal testimony to the committee at this hearing, please go to the following link and make your request by 4:00 p.m., on Wednesday, March 17, 2021:  https://bit.ly/3bIJAs2

Bill Protects Nursing Home Residents, Providers

Published in the Pawtucket Times on June 1, 2020

This month, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) throw a bill in the legislative hopper to slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in nursing homes. It’s a common-sense legislative proposal and needed.

A recently released Kaiser Family Foundation study reported, “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on people who reside or work in long-term care facilities, including the 1.3 million individuals in nursing homes; 800,000 in assisted living facilities; 75,000 in intermediate care facilities; and 3 million people who work in skilled nursing or residential care facilities.”

Combatting COVID-19 in Congregate Settings

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, Casey and Whitehouse’s legislative proposal, S. 3768, The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act, seeks to provide needed resources to facilities to protect frail residents and staff. Residents in these facilities are among the most vulnerable because of their age and underlying medical conditions. According to an analysis conducted by Gregg Girvan for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, as of May 22, in the 39 states that currently report such figures, 43 percent of all COVID-19 deaths have taken place in nursing homes and assisted living facilities

As more than 20,000 nursing homes residents and workers have died due to COVID-19, according to the latest reports, on May 19, 2020, Casey and Whitehouse introduced S.3768 to help states, nursing homes and intermediate care facilities put the brakes on the spreading of the deadly COVID-19. The legislative proposal, with 14 Democratic cosponsors (including Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed}, would help states implement strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings, including through the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and to support nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits.

S. 3768 was referred to Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As of March 30, 2020, a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate or this measure has not been received.

Days after the introduction of 25-page Senate legislative proposal, a House version (H.R. 6972) was introduced by Rep. Ana G. Eshoo (D-CA), cosponsored by Reps. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-IL), Donna E. Shalala (D-FL), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and David N. Cicilline (D-RI). The House bill was referred to House Energy and Commerce

“This virus spares no state, no county, no facility. The unprecedented crisis unfolding in our Nation’s nursing homes demands an immediate, extraordinary response. Reports indicate nursing home residents and workers account for roughly 1 in 4 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States,” said Casey, who serves as Ranking Member of the U.S Senate Special Committee on Aging, in a statement announcing the bill’s introduction. “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act would provide $20 billion in emergency funding [for staffing, testing, Personal Protective Equipment, etc.] to devise a sorely needed national, coordinated response to stem the spread of this terrible virus in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities,” notes Casey.

According to Casey, the Senate bill would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop guidance on cohorting best practices, including on how to safeguard resident rights. It would also instruct HHS to collect and publish data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, and finally fund surge teams of nurses, aides, and other critical staff to fill in at facilities where multiple residents and staff members have been infected.

“COVID-19 poses an immediate threat to the more than 1.3 million Americans, including more than 7,000 Rhode Islanders, who live in nursing homes,” says Whitehouse, noting that frontline staff across the nation are “doing heroic work under very challenging circumstances.”

“We need to get vastly more personal protective equipment and tests to nursing homes, which care for the patients who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Our legislation would also help states fund surge teams, sending additional staff reinforcements to facilities where they are needed to care for patients and prevent infection,” adds Whitehouse.

Before S. 3768 was officially introduced, in early March, Washington, DC-based AARP announced its support for the Senate proposal. “AARP supports the draft of the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act that would help protect the health and save the lives of people in nursing homes and other facilities by supporting testing, personal protective equipment, staffing and more,” said Megan O’Reilly, Vice President of Government Affairs for AARP. “The proposal would also improve public transparency and help protect the rights of residents and their families, adds O’Reilly, calling on Congress “to act immediately to stem the loss of life and slow the spread of the virus.”

In the House Chamber, Rhode Island’s Cicilline, a member of the House Democratic Leadership as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, has also pushed for Congressional funding to stop the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. The fifth term Congressman has called for additional funding for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund in the next package for congregate care facilities, including nursing homes. He also signed a letter to HHS Secretary Azar and Administrator Verma, of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), urging that HHS and the CMS to ensure that a significant portion of the newly allocated $25 billion for testing in the recently passed CARES Act be utilized for testing in nursing homes and other congregate living facilities.

State-wide Efforts to Combat COVID-19 in Nursing Homes

With Governor Gina Raimondo declaring a state of emergency on March 9, 2020, with the COVID-19 arriving in Rhode Island, the deadly pandemic virus spread quickly throughout the state’s nursing homes. At press time, it has been reported that 75 percent of all related COVID-19 deaths are in nursing homes.

According to Joseph Wendelken, Public Information’s Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), the state moved quickly to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the community and in nursing homes. He stated: “We curtailed and then prohibited visiting early on, and we have been doing extensive testing in every assisted living facility in the state. We are doing cyclical testing, meaning that we are continually testing all residents in all homes on a rotating basis. We are giving tailored infection control guidance to specific homes, and we are helping them procure additional PPE.”

Adds Wendelken, RIDOH has established two COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Homes [at Oak Hill Center in Pawtucket and Oakland Grove Health Care Center in Woonsocket] to be a COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Home. “These are centralized facilities to accept patients who are being discharged from the hospital and who are COVID-19 positive but no longer require acute-level care. This strategy allows COVID-19 positive patients leaving the hospital to receive specialized rehabilitation and step-down, post-acute care while reserving hospital beds for patients who need acute-level care,” he said.

On Smith Hill, the Rhode Island House Republican Caucus has recently called for members of the House Committee on Oversight to meet to address the increasing COVID-19 death rate in the state’s nursing and assisted living facilities.

Putting Politics Aside…

With less than 156 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential election, will S. 3768 reach the Senate floor for a vote. Since the beginning of 2019, more than 350 House-passed bills—including hundreds that have bipartisan support—have been buried by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) in his legislative graveyard. With no Republican Senators supporting Casey and Whitehouse’s COVID-19 bill, will it even reach the Senate floor for a vote?

It’s time for McConnell, who has called himself the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation, to lay down his deadly scythe, making the safety of millions of residents who reside in the nation’s 15,583 skilled nursing facilities a legislative priority. The GOP Senator from Kentucky, who is in a close Senate race with Democratic opponent Amy McGrath, might consider putting politics aside during a raging COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the nation to work with Senate Democrats to protect frail residents and nursing home staff. Kentucky voters might view protecting residents against COVID a bipartisan issue.

LTC Must Be Placed on Candidates’ Radar Screen

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 29, 2016

Presidential candidates might just think twice about their political campaign positions on long-term care. With the graying of nation’s voters, Congress will be pushed to put long-term care on its policy agenda. When the dust settles after the Democratic and GOP conventions, the winning candidates must address long-term care issues in their debates before the November election.

In 2013, America’s age 65 or older population made up only 14 percent of the total population, but by 2040, this demographic group will nearly double to comprise about 22 percent. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services the majority of these individuals will require some form of long-term care services (specifically, help with activities of daily living—such as cooking, bathing, or remembering to take medicine—that can be provided in a home or institutional setting.)

Misconceptions About Medicare and Social Security

Survey results in a 17 page report, “Long-Term Care in America: Expectations and Preferences for Care and Caregiving, released by Associated Press (AP)-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, notes that most older Americans expect Medicare and Social Security to pay for long-term care services while these federal programs generally do not. The survey findings also indicate that respondents, age 40 and over, strongly supported public policies that help a person save for long-term care services and for those that defray the cost of care giving, including state paid family leave programs.

“This survey provides much-needed data on how people perceive the issue of long-term care in the United States,” says Trevor Tompson, director of The AP-NORC Center, in a statement released on May 16, 2016 with the survey findings… “The need for long-term care services and support to assist seniors with activities of daily living is increasing exponentially. Financing high-quality services so that the costs are manageable for families and governments will remain a big challenge for decision-makers,” he added.

“Older Americans of today and tomorrow have a 50 percent chance of living with substantial and often expensive daily needs,” adds Dr. Bruce A. Chernof, President and CEO of The SCAN Foundation. “Medicare and Social Security were not built to cover long-term care, leaving American families unprotected, and as the survey shows, unaware of this fact,” he says.

The AP-NORC survey found that while older Americans’ confidence in being financially prepared to pay for long-term care services remains low overall, there has been a slight increase in public confidence over the past four years, consistent with other measures of consumer confidence post-recession, according to the Consumer Confidence Index. In 2013, 27 percent reported feeling very or extremely confident in their ability to pay for long-term care, increasing to 29 percent in 2014, 32 percent in 2015, and 36 percent in 2016.

The polling finds reveal that a widespread misconception as to what Medicare covers for long-term care services. Older respondents, with an annual household incomes less than $50,000, are more likely to expect to rely on government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, while those with higher incomes expect to rely more on personal savings to pay for their needed long-term care services. Still, 3 in 10 of these wealthier older Americans report that they will rely on Medicare to support their care as they age. This reflects common misperceptions among older Americans about the long-term care services that Medicare covers, notes the AP-NORC survey.

Thumbs Up to Aging in Place

Seventy seven percent of the survey respondents would prefer to “age in place” and receive care in their own home, w with far fewer preferring to receive care in a senior community (11 percent), a friend or family member’s home (4 percent), or a nursing home (4 percent). Among those respondents who prefer to receive care at home, there are gender differences in preferences for who provides that care: men would prefer to receive care from a spouse (51 percent vs. 33 percent), and women would prefer to receive care from their children (14 percent vs. 35 percent).

There is widespread support for policies to help caregivers face the costs of providing long-term care, with 72 percent supporting state programs to provide paid family leave, 83 percent supporting tax breaks for caregivers, and 73 percent supporting a Social Security earnings credit for caregivers taking time out from the workforce to provide care.

According to the AP-NORC survey, forty-three percent of the survey respondents have either been caregivers in the past or currently providing long-term care to a family member or close friend. Among those with experience as caregivers, 4 in 10 report having to miss work to provide care.

The researchers found that prior experience with long-term care is associated with greater support for several public policies to help people finance long-term care and to help alleviate costs for caregivers. These individuals expressed higher levels of concern about aging and are more likely to anticipate that it is at least somewhat likely that a loved one will need care in the next five years, compared to those without direct care giving experience.

Finally, one-third of the survey respondents reported having done no planning at all for their own long-term care needs. This 2016 finding is similar to the 31 percent who said the same in 2015 and remains lower than the 47 percent and 44 percent who said they had done no planning in 2014 and 2013, respectively.
One Size Does Not Fit All

Meghan Connelly, Chief Program Development at Rhode Island’s Division of Elderly Affairs, provides some thoughts about the findings of the AP-NORC survey. “Long-term care options are not “one-size-fits-all”. In Rhode Island, there are a number of choices one can make, ranging from living independently and receiving care at home to nursing home care. This report highlights that consumers want options when it comes to making these decisions for themselves, or assisting loved ones with long term care choices,” she says…

Connelly adds, the AP-NORC survey “supports the findings of past research: that the overwhelming majority of people want to receive long term care services at home,” noting that in the Ocean State there are many home- and community-based care options. She says that”home care may be available through a physician’s office; at the time of discharge from a hospital or nursing home; or through referrals to state-subsidized programs administered by agencies under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.”

“The AP-NORC survey also underscores the need to adopt progressive financial policies that support family caregivers who provide the greatest percentage of needed long term care to their elderly or disabled loved ones at home,” warns Connelly.

Greg Crist, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based American Health Care Association (AHCA), notes, “This data generally tracks what our own research has shown: Americans don’t think of this topic every day, and honestly, this is a topic they’d rather avoid. No one likes the thought of aging, and with that aging, the increasing likelihood they will help in their later years. No one welcomes a loss of independence. But here’s the good news – the sector is adapting and innovating.”

Crist asserts nursing homes are meeting the challenge of caring for aging baby boomers. “We’re meeting the growing demands of Boomers, particularly as clinical needs grow, but also in offering amenities such as custom dietary menus, social media communities, and personal rehab care plans that speed recovery times. Whether in Rhode Island or elsewhere, this is an evolving health practice, recognizing that change is needed to meet the new preferences of older Americans,” notes Crist.

Listen to the Older Voters

The AP-NORC survey findings mirror other “long-term care perception” studies released by AHCA and AARP. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and GOP standard bearer Donald Trump must not forget the needs of America’s exponentially growing older population. These older voters do not want to fall through the nation’s public policy safety net when they require the most assistance, paying for costly long-term care services. As the survey report notes, older Americans strongly support Family Leave programs and also call for government administered Long Term Care Insurance programs.

For a copy of the report go to http://www.longtermcarepoll.org/Pages/Polls/long-term-care-in-america-expectations-and-preferences-for-care-and-caregiving.aspx..