How Congress can help curb skyrocketing prescription drug prices

How Congress can help curb skyrocketing prescription drug prices
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Consumer Reports recently published a startling report stating that 30 percent of Americans said they are paying more money for their prescription drugs because they have seen a rise from last year in their out-of-pocket prescription costs. To cover the increased costs, many of them said they had to look for a second job, spend less on groceries, or outright forgo filling their prescriptions. 

But what caused the price hike? There are many possible contributing factors, but Consumer Reports identified one primary reason: there is “no federal law… [that] keeps drug prices in check.” However, there is a bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyLawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors Pelosi floats undoing SALT deduction cap in next coronavirus bill Democrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWhoopi Goldberg presses Sanders: 'Why are you still in the race?' Unprecedented health crisis called for historic expansion of unemployment insurance Coronavirus crisis scrambles 2020 political calculus MORE (D-Ore.) that would keep prices in check. Still, until it is passed, Americans will, unfortunately, continue to face the brunt of rising costs.

For two decades now, more than 30 million diabetics dependent on insulin have seen its price more than double. A recent report found that, in 2016, the average annual insulin bill of a person with type 1 diabetes was $5,705. It was half that in 2012. 

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And prices are still on the rise. In 2017, pharmaceutical giant Sanofi hiked the price of Lantus, its insulin product, to nearly $5,000 from $2,900. 

The following year, Sanofi made $3.9 billion off Lantus alone. And Novo Nordisk, another insulin manufacturer, has more than doubled the cost of its insulin to nearly $600 from $256. The price increases have real consequences.

Michelle Dehetre, a mother of five from Maine, was rushed to the emergency room after she took low doses of insulin to make her supply last longer. 

She couldn’t afford her monthly $300 insulin bill, so she had to ration her insulin. And she isn’t alone: one in four diabetic patients can’t afford insulin and are now distributing their dosages as Michelle did. This is dangerous and has already resulted in many deaths. But there are little diabetics can do at the moment.

This leads to an interesting question: why is a century-old drug so expensive? In 1923, its discoverers sold their patent for less than $5 to the University of Toronto. They wanted insulin to be affordable: "Insulin belongs to the world, not to me," said Frederick Banting, a co-discoverer. But it doesn’t belong to the world. It belongs to three pharmaceutical giants that dominate the global insulin market. And, as Consumer Reports found, without any Congressional oversight, these pharmaceuticals have been able to price gouge as they please.

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However, Congress can rein in Big Pharma with the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act (PDPRA). The bill, if passed, would penalize pharmaceuticals that increase their prices at a rate faster than inflation, deterring price gouging. And it would cap out-of-pocket prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries. 

Democrats in the House of Representatives floated alternative proposals to lower drug prices, but they relied on “socialist price controls,” as Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Trump resists pressure for nationwide stay-at-home order | Trump open to speaking to Biden about virus response | Fauci gets security detail | Outbreak creates emergency in nursing homes McConnell: Pelosi trying to 'jam' Senate on fourth coronavirus relief bill On The Money: House Dems push huge jobs project in wake of coronavirus | Trump leans on businesses in virus response | Lawmakers press IRS to get relief checks to seniors MORE (R-Ky.) explained. He rejected their plan and said it would not be considered in the Senate.

On the other hand, the PDPRA does not rely on socialist price controls. Instead, it encourages fair pricing practices and provides patient protections. It is one of the many reasons why President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE said that he likes “Sen. Grassley’s drug pricing bill very much.” 

Republican senators should follow the president’s lead, especially those who have committed to addressing rising drug costs. Sens.  Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerRomney says he tested negative for coronavirus, will remain in quarantine Senate GOP super PAC books more than million in fall ads The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Markets expected to plunge amid partisan squabbling MORE (R-Colo.), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyGOP senator suspending campaign fundraising, donating paycheck amid coronavirus pandemic New bill would withhold pay from Senate until coronavirus stimulus package passes Senate GOP super PAC books more than million in fall ads MORE (R-Ariz.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus Senate eyes quick exit after vote on coronavirus stimulus package MORE (R-Maine), and John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Cuban says he'd spank daughter if she was partying during coronavirus pandemic Twitter comes under fire over Chinese disinformation on coronavirus MORE (R-Texas) have all championed measures that would help lower costs, and with their support, the PDPRA can pass and help more Americans afford their prescriptions. 

Robert Foley is a member of the Maine State Senate, representing District 34. He serves on the Health Coverage, Insurance, and Financial Services Committee.