Guest Columnist

Prescription drugs: Fix what's broken and improve what's working

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is pictured in Washington, D.C. in October 2017. (photo supplied by Grassley press office)
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is pictured in Washington, D.C. in October 2017. (photo supplied by Grassley press office)

Health care is one of the top issues I hear about regularly from Iowans at my annual 99 county meetings. The affordability of prescription drugs, in particular, is a major concern, and for good reason. The continual rise of prescription drug costs has made it increasingly difficult for Iowans and all Americans to receive the medications they depend on to survive and live a higher-quality life.

A survey released earlier this year by the West Health Institute found that more than 80% of Iowa voters are worried about the cost of their prescription medications. It also found that Iowans are not happy with the way Congress and the federal government are handling the problem. I don’t blame them. The issue of skyrocketing prescription drug prices has been kicked down the road by members of Congress for far too long. That’s why as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I’m introducing legislation that will directly address the problem and provide relief to everyone struggling under outrageous drug prices.

The bipartisan bill, which I’ve authored with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), makes important reforms in three specific areas: Medicare Parts B and D and Medicaid. After months of working across the aisle to identify issues of consensus, we’re proposing significant improvements that will not only help lower the cost of prescription drugs, but also make substantive changes to the structure of these programs to increase transparency and curb future abuses that lead to high costs for consumers and taxpayers.

There are more than 43 million people enrolled in Medicare Part D. Overall, they’re happy with the choices available through the program. However, the affordability of prescription drugs is a significant problem. Taxpayers are also feeling the pinch of rising costs because of factors such as new drug therapies and enrollment growth.

To address these issues, this new bill changes the structure of Medicare Part D so that insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers would be responsible for a larger share of the cost of medications. By requiring these entities to have more skin in the game, they’re incentivized to keep costs lower for their own interests, as well as those of consumers and taxpayers. The bill also permanently eliminates gaps in coverage that lead to higher costs, and protects patients by capping the amount that they pay out-of-pocket during the course of the year.

The bill also takes on the method of reimbursement of drugs given to patients in doctors’ offices or hospital outpatient departments. The current method exposes too many beneficiaries to high costs. By including more complete and accurate reporting requirements, pricing calculations for prescriptions will improve and patients will have to pay less out-of-pocket. Another important measure in the bill is addressing incentives for doctors to prescribe the most expensive drugs. By doing this, patients will have more opportunity to work with their doctor to get the lowest-cost drug that works for them. Additionally, the legislation addresses the year-after-year price hikes that put unnecessary burdens on health care consumers. By putting a limit on what Medicare will pay, pharmaceutical companies will be forced to reevaluate what they charge.

Finally, this bill will make new and innovative medical treatments and therapies more accessible to everyone, including Medicaid recipients. We live in a remarkable time where gene therapies offer cures to diseases that were once deadly. Other treatments are now available that bolster our immune cells to fight cancer. These treatments shouldn’t be available only to those who can afford their sticker price. However, the Medicaid program was not designed with these types of medical innovations in mind. Provisions in this new legislation would improve the Medicaid program to allow for greater access to these treatments, as well as include good governance policies such as improved data collection and transparency.

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The truth is that no one piece of legislation will be able to completely solve high prescription drug prices. It will take targeted reforms and bipartisan cooperation. Congress can make real progress on this issue by working across the aisle on areas of consensus to fix the problems contributing to high drug costs and build on the pieces of the system that are working. This bipartisan legislation does exactly that.

l Chuck Grassley is a Republican U.S. senator from Iowa and chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

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