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Drug Prices Take Center Stage At Families USA Conference

Skyrocketing prescription drug prices took central stage at Families USA's Health Action Conference 2019. Lawmakers, policy experts, and grassroots advocates spoke about rising drug costs, how they were harming patients, businesses, and our entire health care system, and what can be done to bring them down.

The conference began with brief remarks by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). She thanked the audience for their work and said that lowering drug prices was a high priority for her and her caucus. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh followed with a rousing speech, declaring that he was proud of Maryland's record in working to combat skyrocketing drug prices at the state level. In 2017 Maryland enacted a law to stop price gouging by drug companies, several drug manufacturers sued them, and now Frosh is appealing the case to the Supreme Court.

Several reporters also recounted how in their travels across the country they heard again and again from ordinary Americans who can't afford their drugs. One older woman named Ann lives in Washington, D.C., works part time, and has been prescribed medication for her feet. The cost is $1500 per month for a small topical medicine that doesn't work that well. And there are countless similar stories. As a result of these stories, Families USA has expanded its focus and programs, and is now one of the leading groups working to pass legislation that will lower drug costs.

After the opening speakers, the conference held a panel called "The Path to Federal Prescription Drug Reform." The panelists were Afton Cissell from the office of Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Stan Dorn representing Families USA, and Leigh Purvis representing AARP.

Leigh began the panel with some background information. The country is experiencing massive drug price increases, with brand name drugs going from $10,000 for a year's worth to medicine to $100,000 or $1,000,000 per year. More and more people have conditions that can only be treated with expensive specialty drugs, so drug companies are shifting their focus to these costly medicines. Prices for widely used brand drugs went up by 8.4% in 2017, which is not sustainable. Taxpayer-funded programs such as Medicare and Medicare are under enormous strain because of these rising costs, and even private plans are feeling the heat.

She concluded that the President's blueprint for lowering drug prices does a good job of describing the problem, but its solutions need work, and they do not focus on the biggest problem-the pricing behavior of drug companies. Pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) and other entities share responsibility for rising costs, but drug manufacturers are the most responsible, and this issue can't be ignored.

The next presenter, Stan Dorn from Families USA, focused on long term solutions. He emphasized that the drug pricing system is incredibly complicated and nonsensical-most current patents are given for changes to existing drugs instead of new cures. "And this," he said, "leads to profits that would make a robber baron blush." Companies get monopoly rights for drugs, increase prices to appalling levels, and conduct research based on profits instead of what will cure diseases. Dorn cited the example of superbugs, where drug manufacturers aren't trying to find cures for these sicknesses because it won't be profitable.

The overwhelming percentage of people support action to lower drug prices, but that percentage declines if people think those actions will harm innovation. But most drug research and innovation is funded by the National Institutes of Health or other government sources. The challenge is to educate the public so they know these facts.

Finally, Afton Cissell from Rep. Lloyd Doggett's office spoke. Rep. Doggett has fought for lower drug prices and Medicare negotiations for years. She said that several proposals were "low-hanging fruit" such as stopping anticompetitive behavior by drug companies, requiring access to samples to promote cheaper generic drugs, importing drugs from other countries, and requiring price transparency (although every one of these proposals will still face strong opposition).

The bigger ideas included giving Medicare the power to negotiate lower drug prices and ending abuse of the patent system. Again, drug companies are pointing fingers at PBMs, insurance companies, and hospitals, and there are no good actors here, but they bear much of the responsibility. She concluded that this was an opportune moment to enact meaningful reform, and urged the audience to pitch in. The fight to lower drug prices will be hard, but it will be worth it.

The three experts provided a great deal of insight on lowering drug prices, and the audience left better informed. While the panel did not discuss PBMs in great detail, they mentioned they were a problem. The prospects for drug pricing reform look better than anytime in recent memory.

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