Health officials call for drug affordability legislation
ANNAPOLIS — When Bonnita Spikes, of Prince George’s County, learned her Alzheimer’s medication’s price had skyrock- eted to $500, she was no longer able to afford the essential medicine.
Diagnosed in 2013, Spikes quit her job after she determined her condition had progressed to the point where she was no longer able to fulfill her duties, leaving her without insurance or the ability to pay the soaring drugs’ costs.
“I just can’t imagine needing something that important and not being able to get it,” Spikes said.
Spikes joined a throng of Maryland health officials, faith leaders and proponents in Annapolis Wednesday to call on elected officials to pass legislation that would control the rising cost of prescription drugs.
“I have seen too many of my patients go without access to life-saving medications,” said Dr. Leana Wen, the Baltimore City health commissioner. “We should have not have our patients choose between medications and food, medications and rent, [or] medications and life.”
The Maryland General Assembly is considering a pair of Senate and House bills that would fight prescription drug price increases.
One bill would allow state Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) to sue drug companies for price gouging and would require the companies to disclose the basis for any substantial price increases for drugs sold in Maryland.
A separate bill would require manufacturers of drugs that cost patients $2,500 or more yearly to provide annual reports on how much they spend on research and development, manufacturing, marketing and profit.
About 300 generic drugs’ prices more than doubled from 2010 to 2015, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Moreover, the report found that the “price increases generally persisted for at least one year” after the initial hike.
“We’ve seen across the country and in Maryland increases in [the] price of generic pills — inexplicable — they have nothing to do with cost,” said Frosh, adding that many of the generic medications that have seen steep price increases have been around in the same form for decades.
Almost 8 percent of Americans don’t take their medication as prescribed because of a lack of affordability, according to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
Patients have resorted to cutting medication dos- es in half or have skipped them altogether, sometimes leading to deadly and debilitating consequences, said Wen.
In 2016, there was public outrage when the cost of the EpiPen shot up from $50 to $600, leading to a Federal Trade Commis- sion investigation. The same year former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli increased the price of a drug used by AIDS patients by more than 5,000 percent.
Moreover, as the heroin-opioid epidemic contin- ues to rise, so do the costs of the life-saving drugs that reverse overdoses, such as naloxone. Some versions’ costs have risen by as much as 500 percent.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Wen said. “Nalox- one is a generic medica- tion. … It’s available on the pennies in other countries. Why is it that at the time of a public health emergen- cy, we are priced out of our ability to save lives?”
Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president of policy and communications at Behavioral Health System Baltimore, said nalox- one’s price increase has “severely impacted” the organization’s supply. The amount of kits Behavioral Health System Baltimore has been able to buy an- nually has been slashed in half, from 8,000 to 4,000.
“We think we are not saving as many lives as we could be,” Breidenstine said. “With the increase in prices, it limits our abili- ty to expand (and) it limits our ability to actually save lives in Baltimore.”
However, Martin Rosendale, Tech Council of Maryland’s senior ex- ecutive adviser, said a key component of one of the bills, which forces corporations to disclose their spending, would hurt Maryland’s bioscience companies and could put them at a competitive dis- advantage.
“Reporting requirements would create a hostile environment for biotechnology companies at a time when we are work- ing to establish Maryland as a top [tier] hub of biotechnology in the nation,” Rosendale said.
In December, Maryland joined 19 other states in filing a lawsuit against six drug companies for artificially inflating prices.
“We need to take action in Maryland,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Health Care Initia- tive for All Coalition. “It’s not going to happen in Washington. And if we take action here, we can not only protect Marylanders, but also influence states in the rest of the country and other states will follow our lead.”
Bills SB 437 and HB 666, which would require drug companies to disclose how much they are spending, are sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore) and Del. Eric Bromwell (D-Baltimore), respectively.
Bills SB 415 and HB 631, which would allow Frosh to sue companies for price gouging, have been filed at the request of the office of the attorney general.