For decades, Big Pharma has raised drug prices with impunity. Here in Hawaii the average annual cost of brand name prescription drug treatment increased 58% between 2012 and 2017, while the annual income for Hawaii residents increased only 14.8%. Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them.

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That’s why Congress needs to pass meaningful legislation. The Senate needs to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act and the House needs to act on its legislation to reduce prescription drug prices.

It’s time. The Senate Finance Committee passed the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act in July with strong bipartisan support.

House legislation may go a step further, and allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices — a proposal supported by AARP and the vast majority of Democratic (90%), Republican (93%) and Independent (95%) voters age 50 and over in a national poll.

Over the August recess, I met with the Hawaii congressional delegation about prescription drug prices. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono support the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act and would support negotiation authorization for Medicare. Rep. Ed Case said direct negotiations for bulk drug purchases by Medicare would make a huge difference in reducing prescription drug costs. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s office also made clear she supports current proposals to reduce prescription drug prices.

We gave the congressional delegation petitions signed by about 4,600 Hawaii residents urging them to act to reduce the price of prescription drugs.

For too long, drug companies have been price gouging seniors and hardworking Americans. Consider insulin, which people with diabetes rely on. Its price nearly tripled from 2002 to 2013.

But it isn’t a breakthrough drug: insulin was invented nearly a century ago, yet modern formulations remain under patent, thanks to drug makers manipulating the system. Some patients trek to Canada, while others risk their lives by rationing or skipping doses.

Even those of us who don’t need insulin or other prescription drugs are affected by skyrocketing drug prices. We pay not only at the pharmacy counter, but through higher insurance premiums, and through higher taxes to fund programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Older Americans are hit especially hard. Medicare Part D enrollees take an average of four to five prescriptions per month, and their average annual income is around $26,000.

The root cause of the problem is clear: the high prices of prescription drugs set by pharmaceutical companies when they first come on the market, which then increase faster than inflation year after year.

In March AARP launched a nationwide campaign called “Stop Rx Greed” to rein in drug prices for all Hawaii residents and all Americans.

The bill under consideration in the Senate would cap out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors and crack down on drug makers whose price hikes outpace inflation. The nation clearly needs this reform:  the average drug price increase in the first six months of 2019 was 10.5% — five times the rate of inflation.

Big Pharma

Hawaii residents, like all Americans, already pay among the highest drug prices in the world.

Revlimid, a brand-name drug to treat cancer, increased in annual cost in Hawaii from $147,413 to $247,496 between 2012 and 2017, affecting many of the 110,624 Hawaii residents diagnosed with cancer. The drug Aggrenox, which treats heart disease, cost $3,030 a year in 2012 and increased to $5,930 a year in 2017 in Hawaii. About 28,150 residents here have heart disease. It’s no wonder that about 28 percent of Americans stopped taking medication because of cost in 2016.

Meanwhile, Big Pharma is fighting for the status quo – and blocking needed improvements to the system that could bring relief to seniors, families and small businesses. Drug giants Merck, Amgen and Eli Lilly actually sued the Trump administration so they could keep the list prices of their drugs secret from the public. The industry is spending record sums lobbying in Washington, and they are running ads claiming that more affordable drugs will actually harm consumers.

“We urge the Senate to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act in the fall.”

But the tide is turning. The National Academy for State Health Policy reports that, so far this year, 29 states have passed 47 new laws aimed at lowering prices for prescription medications. Hawaii lawmakers are planning to introduce state legislation to cap insulin costs, make drug pricing more transparent and possibly allow purchases of drugs in other countries, like Canada, where safe prescription drugs are cheaper. There is no one silver bullet. Reigning in drug costs requires state and federal action.

In D.C., there is rare bipartisan agreement that something must be done. President Trump addressed the issue in his State of the Union, saying: “It is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place. This is wrong, unfair, and together we can stop it.”

Hawaii’s congressional delegation is in a position to lead on this issue and make a difference for every Hawaii resident.

We urge the Senate to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act in the fall, when the House is expected to act on its own drug pricing bill.

While there is reason to be hopeful that drug prices will come down, hope is not enough. Too much is at stake. No Hawaii resident should be forced to choose between putting food on the table or buying a lifesaving medication. Congress needs to act to stop Rx greed.

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