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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Overpriced drugs hurting seniors


by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota

April 12,  2016--Many budget-strapped seniors are being forced to choose between buying doctor-prescribed medications and paying for other basic necessities
  • Companies should not be allowed to delay generic drugs from hitting market
At a recent meeting in St. Cloud, some older Minnesotans shared stories that they should never have to tell.

Like millions of other Americans, these seniors feel powerless as their health and financial well-being is often jeopardized by ever-rising prescription drug prices. Recent double-digit increases – far beyond the U.S. inflation rate – are putting essential, even life-saving, medicines out of reach for too many people.

In short, many budget-strapped seniors are being forced to choose between buying doctor-prescribed medications and paying for other basic necessities like food, rent or gas. For some, it means cutting their pills in half to make them last longer, or even taking the risk of forgoing medications altogether.

At the St. Cloud meeting, a local woman shared the price of just one of her husband’s many medications has increased by $100 per month since January. 

Now, to save money, he no longer takes it each day as recommended by his doctor, but is spreading each dose over two or three days.

Her story was gathered as part a “Prescription Drug Cost Listening Tour” my office conducted throughout the state to hear about the impact of skyrocketing drug prices.  

As a member of the Senate Health Committee, I plan to share stories like hers with my congressional colleagues so they can hear firsthand about the urgent need to address this problem.

Real problem

Rising prescription drug costs are a very real and growing problem for many nationwide. Lack of competition has allowed drug companies to hike prices exorbitantly – even on generics. 

And a number of new specialty drugs come with staggering prices that are being passed on from insurers to everyone else.

Last fall, Americans were enraged when Turing Pharmaceuticals hiked the price of one life-saving drug by more than 5,500 percent  – from $13.50 to $750 per pill. 

The company was able to game the system because there is little or no competition. As outrageous and excessive as this was, it’s not the only example of an exorbitant price increase. In short, it showed millions of Americans – especially vulnerable seniors – can be devastated by sudden spikes in drug prices.

And with Americans spending hundreds of billions each year on prescription drugs, the problem of isn’t going away soon. Since January, Pfizer raised the prices of 60 brand name drugs by an average of 10 percent. 

Eight of those drugs went up by at least 20 percent. With treatments for some diseases like cancer costing more than $100,000 annually, out-of-pocket costs can quickly cripple the financial well-being of elderly Americans, even those with comprehensive insurance. Such increases are also driving up insurance premiums for everyone else.
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My solutions
We have to fight back. That’s why I’m taking several steps to slow the advance of drug costs.

First, I am pressing legislation to “pay-for-delay,” where brand-name drug manufacturers pay generic drug makers to delay bringing cheaper, generic alternatives to market. 

By eliminating generic-drug competitors, big drug companies can reap large profits by keeping brand-name prices high. My bill would help millions of Americans by stopping these deals and bringing affordable medications to the market sooner.

I also plan to re-introduce a measure to cut drug prices and save taxpayers up to $24 billion by allowing the federal Medicare program to negotiate lower prices for drugs used by older Americans. 

Unlike other federal health programs like Medicaid and those run by the Veterans Administration, Medicare officials are banned by law from negotiating lower prices with drug manufacturers.

Most industrialized countries use their buying power to negotiate lower prices for their citizens. In fact, many drugs developed and manufactured in the United States cost much less in other countries. 

That’s why we need to lower barriers to importing lower-cost drugs from countries like Canada, so seniors can save money and import their medications safely and legally.

In March, I introduced a measure to end a tax break that allows drug companies to write off the billions of dollars they spend on television, magazine and Internet advertisements to sell more expensive brand-name drugs, even when cheaper, equally effective drugs are on the market. 

The United States is one of only two countries that allows these “direct-to-consumer” ads, which ultimately drive up health care costs. American taxpayers spend too much to fund this tax break – that’s money that can be put to better use.

We have to do more to bring down prescription drug prices that disproportionately hit seniors. 

That’s why I’m working in Washington to enact common sense measures to cut the cost of the prescriptions that Minnesotans need.  And it’s why I’ve been listening to them in communities across Minnesota and sharing their stories in Washington.



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