How to reduce drug costs for over 266 million Americans

As an organization focused on the health and wellness of black women, we are extremely concerned about the role prescription drugs play and the fact that many women may not have access to the medication they need because of cost. From accessibility to effectiveness research, we believe black women have unique needs and challenges when it comes to health in general and prescription drugs in particular.

We have been monitoring the discussion of the price of prescription drugs. It is no secret that a pillar of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGraham: 'I could not disagree more' with Trump support of Afghanistan troop withdrawal GOP believes Democrats handing them winning 2022 campaign Former GOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer resigns MORE’s presidency and the newest members of the 116th Congress is the promise of lowering prescription drug prices for millions of Americans who pay far too much. Recently, HHS Secretary Alex Azar has indicated the administration might roll back the current prescription drug rebate program. However, there has not been a promise from drug companies to lower drug prices if rebates are taken away, nor has there been a promise to help patients afford their prescription medications.

The current rebate program aligns the interests of insurance plans and pharmacy-benefit managers (PBMs) to try to negotiate discounts on behalf of patients. PBM's are third party administrator of prescription drug programs for commercial health plans, self-insured employer plans, Medicare Part D plans, the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program and state government employee plans.

They are often portrayed as the reason that prescription drugs are so expensive, PBMs account for just 4 percent of the cost of branded drugs while drug manufacturers account for 88 percent of the cost. 

The competition PBMs introduce into drug pricing saves insurers and patients an average of $941 per person per year, reducing drug costs for over 266 million Americans. We should be finding more ways of introducing transparency and competition into the prescription drug market to bring down costs, not getting rid of the methods that are working.

The proposed regulations, that scale back the ability of drug manufacturers to offer rebates could mean patients will pay more for their medications. Rebates are a tool to negotiate the best price for customers when they buy prescription drugs, and we should be using every tool we have to keep drug prices down. One way to curtail the high cost of medications is to simply unleash the bargaining power of Medicare and Medicaid by allowing them to negotiate discounts and rebates for the millions of Americans who rely on these programs for their health care and prescription drugs.

Secretary Azar has recently voiced some support for using rebates and other tools to control drug prices. “I am not blaming pharmacy-benefit managers for the position we are in around drug pricing or the dynamic of rebates,” he said. “The pharmacy-benefit managers do an incredible job negotiating discounts, rebates in our system. In fact, a major part of the president’s plan is that we’re further empowering pharmacy-benefit managers,” referencing Medicare drug programs for the elderly. For anyone interested in lower drug prices, this is a positive shift from Secretary Azar.

We wholeheartedly believe action should be taken to reduce drug prices for patients. Because of the wage gap where black women make 62 percent of the salary of white males, black women are disproportionately impacted by the high cost of prescription drugs. This places an unnecessary burden on women and often forces them to choose between taking life-saving medication and paying for life’s basic necessities like food, utilities and rent.

Millions of Americans are depending on this administration and the upcoming Congress to work together and make strides towards bringing down prescription drug costs. If they fail to do so, we will see countless individuals struggling to make ends meet because they simply cannot afford their medications.

All stakeholders, including PhRMA, PBMs, insurance companies, retail pharmacies, and hospitals, need to work together to make sure patients receive affordable medications. We strongly support efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.

Linda Goler Blount is the president and CEO, Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI).  Since 1983, we have been the only national organization dedicated solely to improving the health and wellness of our nation’s 21 million black women and girls — physically, emotionally and financially.