Guest Columnist

AARP: Iowans need relief from pharma greed

The Senate Finance Committee's ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, second from right, makes a point as he talks about the public option during the markup of health care legislation, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Wash., Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Sen Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.,  Grassley, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The Senate Finance Committee's ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, second from right, makes a point as he talks about the public option during the markup of health care legislation, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Wash., Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Sen Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Grassley, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

For decades, Big Pharma has raised drug prices with impunity. Here in Iowa, the average annual cost of brand-name prescription drug treatment increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2017. You will be hard pressed to find many Iowans, especially older Iowans, whose income increased even close to that figure in five years. Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them.

In March, AARP launched a nationwide campaign called “Stop Rx Greed” to rein in drug prices for all Iowans and all Americans. Shortly after the launch, the U.S. Senate Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act was introduced.

The bill was introduced in July by Iowa Sen. Grassley, Chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and Oregon Sen. Wyden, the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee. This welcomed act of bipartisanship is much appreciated. I urge Sen. Ernst to back this bipartisan legislation when the Senate returns to the Capitol from the August recess. This bill needs to be debated by the full Senate. It’s time!

The bill passed with bipartisan support through the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Grassley and can now be considered by the full Senate. The bill would cap out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors and crack down on drugmakers whose price hikes outpace inflation. We need this reform: the average drug price increase in the first six months of 2019 was 10.5 percent. That is five times the rate of inflation. Iowans, like all Americans, already pay the highest drug prices in the world.

Meanwhile, Big Pharma is blocking needed improvements to the system that could bring relief to seniors, families, and small businesses. The industry is spending record sums to hire Washington lobbyists.

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 drugmakers 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 4-5 prescriptions per month, and their average annual income is around $26,000. One in three Americans has not taken a medication as prescribed because of the cost.

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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 and then increase faster than inflation year after year. In February, 2019 the Senate Finance Committee asked the three dominant insulin makers about the drugs’ price increases. The price for one vial of Eli Lilly’s Humalog surged from $35 in 2001 to $234 in 2015. From 2013 to this year, Novo Nordisk’s Novolog jumped from $289 to $540 and Sanofi’s Lantus from $244 to $431, according to a committee letter.

Something must be done. Iowa’s congressional delegation of Senators Grassley, Ernst, and Representatives Finkenauer and Loebsack are in position to lead on this issue and make a difference for every Iowan.

I urge the Senate to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act in the fall. 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. Congress must act. No Iowan should be forced to choose between putting food on the table or buying a lifesaving medication.

• Ro Foege of Cedar Rapids is an AARP Iowa Executive Council member.

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