As the Democratic candidates for president sparred in Iowa this week, it was inspiring to hear some bold ideas on a topic where solutions are long overdue: the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs. While progressives may differ in the specifics, they all clearly recognize that that voters want real answers and real action on a matter that can, for some, be one of life or death.
National data show one in four people with diabetes skip or ration insulin because of cost. This practice comes as little surprise when the price of some varieties insulin has increased by more than 17.5% per year from 2012 to 2017. Less than one month into 2020, drug corporations have already hiked the price of prescription medicines by an average of 5% — over twice the current rate of inflation. When high prices force patients to ration their medicine, the consequences are clear: Their conditions worsen, and some even pay with their lives.
Meanwhile pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly — the nation’s largest insulin producer — continue to reap billions of dollars in revenue. In 2018 alone, Eli Lilly brought in $9 billion in revenue from their diabetes medications.
Rather than taking action to stop this assault on patients, Pres.Donald Trump has rewarded bad behavior by giving Big Pharma billions in tax breaks. Eli Lilly paid $0 in federal taxes in 2018 thanks to Trump and the Republicans’ 2017 tax law.
Ever since he began on the campaign trail, Trump has vowed to go after pharmaceutical companies and lower drug costs. But at every turn, he’s given in to Big Pharma, allowing them to continue hiking prices unchecked. The result is a mish-mash of tweaks and half-measures that protect the drug corporations’ power to set and keep prices high.
Consider Trump’s latest proposal to import cheaper medicines from Canada, which has been roundly criticized on both sides of the border — including by former administration officials themselves. Chris Meekins, who worked in the Department of Health and Human Services under Trump and now monitors drug prices in the private sector, pulled no punches in his assessment of whether the plan will provide meaningful relief from high costs: “If you put Canadian drugs on a dogsled and pointed it in the direction of Florida, the dogs would arrive long before any drugs through this regulatory proposal.”
This proposal, like his others, will do nothing to fix the fundamentally flawed system that enables drug corporations to maximize profits at will by granting them monopoly power to raise prices.
Badger state residents fighting cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and other serious conditions can expect spikes up to 7% on the drugs they need to survive.
As anyone on a budget knows, when out-of-pocket and copays go up, something has to give. Paying for life-saving treatments or incurring medical debt and forgoing such basics as food and rent is not much of a choice.
Here in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers has made lowering drug prices a state priority, and he appointed a commission to study the topic earlier this fall. Citizen Action worked with Evers during his campaign on a plan that would go a long way toward addressing the major problems in our prescription drug system.
During Wednesday evening’s State of the State address, Evers took an important first step in prescription drug reform, asking the Legislature to enact a cap on insulin prices before the end of the current session.
But even the best action at the state level cannot do the work of comprehensive, national reform — not when Big Pharma can keep on racking up the profits without any check on their power. Not when patients still find hundreds of widely-used medicines further and further out of their reach. And not when taxpayers continue to fund research and development, while pharmaceutical corporations keep using those investments to pad their bottom line at our expense.
If President Trump were serious about keeping his promises on lowering drug costs, he would take action on HR 3, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Prices Now Act, which passed the House of Representatives in December. Instead, after initially supporting negotiations, Trump has now refused to support the policy, joining Republican leaders in the Senate to stall any progress.
As progressives, we must do better. We must demand candidates answer the question of how they will lower the cost of prescription medications so many people depend on. And we must hold our elected leaders accountable to the promise of meaningful, comprehensive reform. Because everyone in America deserves access to affordable prescription drugs, no matter where they live, what they look like or what’s in their wallets.