Opinion

A patient’s perspective: 3 ways Congress can tackle our drug pricing crisis

It’s time for real drug price reform and to break Big Pharma’s monopoly power

Despite the calls from Americans for relief from high drug prices, drug corporations brazenly continue to raise the already astronomical prices, Mitchell writes. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — Cancer literally broke my back. It also taught me a powerful lesson: The prescription drug pricing system in the U.S. is rigged against patients.

I have an incurable blood cancer called multiple myeloma. I was diagnosed when the cancer ate through one of my vertebra, and I couldn’t move. Every four weeks, I have a cocktail of drugs infused into my body. It takes five hours, and the price is more than $325,000 a year.

I’m grateful for these drugs. And I’m a huge supporter of research and innovation. If drug companies don’t invent new drugs, I will die sooner than I hope.

The need for innovation is not theoretical for me — it’s life and death.

My journey taught me two simple facts: Drugs don’t work if people can’t afford them. And right now, the drug pricing system in America is broken.

Big Pharma has rigged the system to maintain monopoly pricing power — spending billions to get the laws and regulations that benefit drug corporations’ bottom lines. The drug lobby has spent $2 billion on lobbying in Washington since 2003, including a record amount last year.

As a result, American patients are suffering and some are dying. They’re cutting pills in half, skipping doses, and choosing between filling prescriptions and buying groceries.

Maybe that’s why a recent poll found eight in 10 Americans chose drug pricing reform as the top priority for Congress to address this year. That means drug pricing ranked higher than issues such as addressing the opioid epidemic and improving public education. Suffice it to say, Congress is moving into 2019 with a mandate to address skyrocketing drug prices.

Despite the calls from Americans for relief from high drug prices, drug corporations brazenly continue to raise the already astronomical prices.

In January, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced the corporation would raise the prices of 41 drugs. The company has raised the price of its drugs 2,316 times between 2015 and 2019 — more than any other drug maker.

Meg Jackson-Drage of Magna, Utah, feels those price hikes acutely. Meg suffers from fibromyalgia and neuropathic pain, and she depends on Pfizer’s blockbuster drug Lyrica to treat her debilitating symptoms — but she can’t manage the $550 a month price tag.

On Tuesday, Congress is holding hearings to investigate high drug prices. This can — and should — be the first step to achieving real drug price reform in this Congress.

Where to start? There are three key areas for Congress to act.

Medicare price negotiations

Americans pay up to three times more for drugs than any other country. The biggest reason is that we are the only country in the world that doesn’t negotiate prices directly with drug companies. It’s time for Medicare to bargain on our behalf.

Transparency from drug middlemen

Right now, pharmacy benefit managers — the middlemen between drug corporations and the pharmacy — use a system of secret rebates that make it impossible to determine whether rebates are serving patients or lining the pockets of PBMs and insurers. Disclosing secret deals made by pharmacy benefit managers is a key step toward lower prices.

Patent reform

Drug corporations use a variety of insidious tactics to block cheaper generics and protect monopolies. Corporations change the coating on pills to extend exclusivity, cut backroom deals to keep competitors off the market, and create patent thickets to discourage less-expensive generics.

Hearings into drug company pricing are a great start, but we need meaningful action to help patients like Meg and the thousands of others around the country buckling under the weight of high drug prices.

Cancer broke my back, but it stiffened my spine. Together we can stand up to the drug industry. Because, unchecked, Big Pharma will continue to hold patient livelihoods hostage to pad its profit margins. Congress needs to let them know that these abuses won’t stand any longer.

David Mitchell is a cancer patient and the founder of Patients For Affordable Drugs, a patient advocacy organization that does not accept funding from any organizations that profit from the development or distribution of prescription drugs. After more than 30 years at a D.C. policy communications firm, Mitchell retired in December 2016 to devote his full energy to pushing for lower prescription drug prices.

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