With Trumpcare off the table, let’s address the high cost of prescription drugs (Adrianna Williams / The Image Bank)
Now that the Trump-Ryan alternative to Obamacare has failed, the administration and Congress are turning their attention to other matters. But significant work remains in order to shore up our national health care system. Chief among the challenges is the rising cost of prescription drugs. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll even found that 60 percent of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — think lowering prescription drug prices should be a top priority for President Donald Trump and Congress.
On March 22, as the lead Democrat of the Health Care, Benefits and Administrative Rules Subcommittee, I listened to testimony about the impact of rising drug prices on individual Americans. One patient we heard from,David Mitchell, has multiple myeloma — an incurable blood cancer. He testified that, during the five years he took the drug Revlimid for his condition, his co-pays increased by 500 percent.
Revlimid is made by the pharmaceutical company Celgene. During this same period, Celgene’s revenues from Revlimid increased from $2.5 billion in 2010 to $5.8 billion in 2015 — an increase of 132 percent. Celgene has come under fire for using a restricted distribution system to prevent generic competitors from getting access to the drug samples they would need to bring a generic version of Revlimid to market.
Given these profits, it’s no wonder that some drug companies take extraordinary steps to prevent potential generic competition, which could bring down the cost of their products for patients and taxpayers alike.
The challenges we face in the prescription drug market go beyond restricted distribution systems. We have witnessed incredible price increases for some decades-old drugs. For example, Kaleo Pharmaceuticals recently increased the price of its auto-injector version of naloxone — a lifesaving drug first approved in 1971 to reverse opioid overdoses — from $690 in 2014 to $4,500 today.
The opioid epidemic is ravaging many parts of the country, including the suburbs surrounding Chicago. In 2015 alone, Cook County recorded 609 opioid-related deaths. Neighboring DuPage County saw opioid-related deaths increase by 53 percent from 2015 to 2016. It is simply wrong for a drug company to raise the price of a lifesaving overdose antidote by more than 500 percent in just two years. After all, lifesaving treatments only save lives when people can afford them.
Although we absolutely rely on breakthrough therapies to treat the most challenging diseases, new drugs are being introduced at higher and higher prices that our health care system simply cannot afford. Some of these drugs are true breakthroughs, but others add little clinical value over drugs already on the market.
Of course, we do not want the government to stifle innovation. We want drug companies to be able to earn a fair profit that allows them to recoup their research and development costs and invest in the next cure. But no company should be able to misuse public safety regulations to stifle competition and secure a monopoly advantage.
When drug companies use restricted distribution systems and other anti-competitive practices to prevent potential generic competitors from coming onto the market, they drive up prices and impose added costs on our health care system. Even more important, these anti-competitive practices harm patients like David Mitchell and thousands of my constituents who need those products to stay alive.
Discovering a lifesaving drug is complicated. Lowering prescription drug prices is not. We know what the tools are. Among them are promoting generic competition in the market, increasing transparency in the pharmaceutical chain, and letting Medicare negotiate for a better deal on drugs. The government can remove the legal hurdles to lower drug prices. Yet, in its headlong rush to eliminate a host of federal regulations, the Trump administration has so far ignored those unfairly protecting drug company profits.
The demise of the Trump-Ryan health care reform bill shouldn’t end the discussion of how to improve health coverage for all Americans. Instead, it could allow us to begin a constructive, bipartisan conversation about what we can do to rein in runaway prescription drug prices. David Mitchell and millions of other Americans are waiting for us to act.
Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat, represents the 8th District of Illinois and serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.