As Drug Prices Climb, Md. Lawmakers Chide Colleagues for Succumbing to ‘Big Pharma’

Panelists on a virtual panel on prescription drug prices in Frederick County this week. Screenshot.

Drug prices in the U.S. are skyrocketing because Congress is beholden to the pharmaceutical industry for campaign contributions, two Maryland lawmakers charged this week.

The congressmen praised the state for its first-in-the-nation effort to force reductions in the price of medications. 

Although there is optimism surrounding Maryland’s newly-created Prescription Drug Affordability Board, the panel has been slow to get organized because of uncertainty about its funding. 

Speaking at a virtual Frederick County forum Wednesday night intended to spotlight the impact of high drug prices, Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (D) and David J. Trone (D) said the pharmaceutical manufacturers have been able to block congressional reforms by donating billions of dollars — more than any other industry — to influential lawmakers.

They pointed to HR 3, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, a measure championed by — and now named for — the late Baltimore lawmaker.

The bill, which passed the House but has yet to get a vote in the U.S. Senate, would cap prices on the most popular medications, limit out-of-pocket expenses for individuals on Medicare and allow the federal government to negotiate lower costs. 

“That would save people somewhere between $30 billion and $35 billion a year, just allowing the market principle back in, allowing the government to negotiate,” said Raskin. “We do that in the Medicaid program. We do it in the VA program, but we don’t do it in Medicare,” he added.

Trone said Americans pay far more than consumers in other countries for the same drugs because “big Pharma” recoups its research and development costs here, rather than spreading them around more evenly. 

He pointed to a Committee on Oversight and Reform study that found that while diabetics in the U.S. pay, on average, $585 for a popular brand of insulin, people in Australia pay just $28. In the U.K, consumers pay $42 and in Canada $47.

Trone said pharmaceutical industry executives have acknowledged privately that health plans in other countries don’t allow exorbitant drug costs. 

“They say ‘well, because that’s all they’ll pay,’” the lawmaker said of the lower prices overseas. “Well, that’s bullshit. I mean, that’s unbelievable. We’re… paying for Europe and other countries’ medical costs. We’ve got to get that money back in our country.”

Frederick County Executive Jan H. Gardner (D) said this year’s spike in layoffs has resulted in people losing both their health insurance and their prescription drug coverage.

“Real people are out there struggling,” she said. “It’s frightening for people to lose a job at any time. But it’s more frightening right now, during this pandemic.” 

Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, Frederick County’s chief health officer, said non-profits are stepping up to assist those in need, but such help is not a long-term answer.

“Relying on charitable donations from the faith community, and people having to try to navigate that and beg for coverage, we can do better,” she said. 

Trone said he has been working closely with representatives for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris on prescription drug prices and other issues.

“They are totally in line with us on all of our addiction ideas, all of our mental health ideas and all of our medical research ideas,” the lawmaker said. “We’ve got to hammer these drug companies, because they’re just hiding behind ‘we can’t negotiate.’”

Trone called the rising price of medications “perhaps the most important issue in every community across Maryland and America.”

Maryland’s new Prescription Drug Affordability Board, which the legislature created in 2019, has been slow to get up and running because Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) vetoed a measure to fund the panel.

The bill he rejected would levy a fee on drug manufacturers, wholesalers, insurance carriers and pharmacy benefits managers. In his veto message in May, Hogan cited the staggering impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on the state’s economy.

The board is required by law to repay a $750,000 loan from the Maryland Health Care Commission and to fund future operations. 

The funding measure passed the Senate 45-0 and the House 98-36. Advocates are confident the General Assembly will override the vetoes in January. 

Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, said industry lobbyists are closely watching the state because they are fearful other states will also take steps to cap drug costs. 

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(Disclosure: The David and June Trone Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Maryland Matters. Rep. Raskin spoke at a virtual fundraiser for Maryland Matters this week.)