Thinking It Through: Time to rein in prescription costs

Most elected officials behave as though high cost is just a terrible fact
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Categories: News, Schenectady County

Years ago, I learned a valuable lesson: If you complain about prescription drug prices to someone who works for a pharmaceutical company, you’ll get an eye roll and a sad shake of the head in response. 

At least, that’s what I got when I made the mistake of wondering what could possibly justify the high price of Sovaldi, the hepatitis C medicine that costs roughly $1,000 per pill, or $84,000 for a 12-week course of treatment. 

“There’s so much research that goes into a drug like that,” my pharmaceutical company friend explained. “We need to be able to recoup our costs.” 

There’s some truth in this. 

But it’s also true that Sovaldi costs more in the U.S. than in any other wealthy country — in some cases, a lot more. According to a 2016 study conducted by the World Health Organization, in Germany a 12-week course of treatment costs $57,796. In Turkey, $50,023. In Canada, $38,288.  

What’s sad is that there’s nothing unusual about this situation, other than the unusually high cost of Sovaldi. 

Americans pay more for prescription drugs than residents of most other countries, which is why Schenectady County has been able to substantially cut its prescription drug prices simply by purchasing employees’ medications from Canada. At a time when prescription drug prices are soaring, the cost of the Schenectady Meds I prescription program dropped from $5.6 million in 2010 to $3.6 million last year. 

“Why can’t everybody do this?” I wondered, when I read the Daily Gazette article about the county’s successful effort to reduce drug costs.
 
I mean, seriously. 

If Schenectady County can figure out how to cut prescription drug costs, why can’t everyone? 

Most elected officials behave as though the high cost of prescription drugs is just a terrible fact of life, one that can’t be altered or changed. But this isn’t true. There are things that can be done to address the high cost of prescription drugs. Lawmakers just don’t do them.

Other countries negotiate drug prices; the U.S. allows manufacturers to set their own prices. Drug patents last longer in the U.S. than in the other countries, which protects pharmaceutical companies from competition that would bring prices down.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced an amendment urging the federal government to allow Americans to purchase drugs from Canada, but it was defeated 52-46. Rising Democratic star Cory Booker said he voted no because “any plan to allow the importation of prescription medications should also include consumer protections that ensure foreign drugs meet American safety standards.”

This is nonsense, and it allows drugmakers to rip off Americans while giving citizens of other countries what amounts to a much better deal. Canadians aren’t dying en masse because their medicine isn’t as good as ours. Nor are people in Schenectady County.

Prescription drug prices are outrageous, and the only way to get them under control is to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies that profit from them. Most politicians shed their crocodile tears and pretend there’s nothing they can do. But some are trying.  

In his State of the State address, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed creating a price ceiling for prescription drugs covered by the Medicaid program. This benchmark price would be recommended by the state’s Drug Utilization Review Board; any drug that exceeds it would be subject to a surcharge.

As with any proposal, the devil’s in the details.

But it’s a promising idea, and it deserves attention.

Naysayers will say that Cuomo’s proposal isn’t feasible. Maybe it’s not. But my thoughts keep turning to Schenectady County. If Schenectady County can figure out how to lower drug costs, why can’t the state? Why can’t everybody?

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