Brief

Cutting prescription drug costs still priority in U.S. Senate, Baldwin says

By: - March 28, 2022 2:34 pm
Medication set against $100 bills. Colorful pills showing health care is expensive as are prescription drugs

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Federal legislation to rein in the cost of prescription drugs is still in play, according to a Wisconsin lawmaker who is sponsoring several such measures.

A bill that would lower patients’ out-of-pocket costs for insulin is circulating, and Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin says a Senate vote could come sometime “in the coming weeks.” 

The legislation would require 60 votes to avoid being blocked. During a virtual news conference last week, Baldwin said that “there’s a hope that we could get some support from our Republican colleagues” that would enable the bill to clear the required 60-vote threshold. 

Sen. Tammy Baldwin

Baldwin said that when insulin prices doubled between 2012 and 2016, that was unnecessary because the diabetes treatment hasn’t changed much since its introduction 100 years ago. 

She said she hopes that another provision she has advocated, allowing the federal Medicare program to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers, can be revived this year as well.

“For seniors, the problem of inflation is only made worse by the ever-increasing price of prescription drugs,” said Lisa Lamkins, advocacy director for AARP-Wisconsin, which organized the March 24 news conference.

“If consumer prices had risen as fast as drug prices over the last 15 years, gas would now cost $12.20 a gallon and milk would be $13 a gallon,” Lamkins said. A  six-pack of beer would cost about $29, a six-pack of brats about $12, “and cheddar cheese would be a little more than $17 a pound,” she added. “That’s a pretty expensive tailgate.”

Lamkins said 4.2 million U.S. AARP members, including 126,000 in Wisconsin, have signed the organization’s petition urging Congress to act on legislation curbing drug prices.

“Lower prices actually means more access to drugs, “ Lamkins said. “Medicines don’t work if people can’t afford them.”

Karen Juteson, 70, said the cost of two recently developed, highly effective medications for her diabetes quickly put her in the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap, nicknamed the “donut hole,” requiring her to pay a portion of the cost. That out-of-pocket cost “was prohibitive,” she said, while lower-cost drugs that were offered as an alternative were less effective and came with unwanted side effects. 

“It’s not just the uninsured and the low-income people who experience difficulty with the high cost of prescription medications,” Juteson said.

In her years as a hospital social worker, Susan Fadness frequently saw patients who could have avoided hospitalizations “if they had taken their prescribed medications,” Fadness said. “But they did not take the medications because of the costs.”

American patients pay two, three or four times what residents of other wealthy countries pay for medicine. Medicare negotiation would produce savings for taxpayers as well as patients, Baldwin said. 

Medicare prescription drug negotiation was part of the Build Back Better budget package that stalled in the Senate after passing the U.S. House of Representatives in late 2021. That legislation also contained numerous components including paid family leave, support for child care providers and for parents who need child care services, and changes to help make the Affordable Care Act more accessible to lower- and moderate-income people.

“We are still quietly working to revive several sections of it, including, very importantly, the negotiation of prescription drugs,” Baldwin said. If that succeeds, the budget bill can pass on a simple majority without having to gain 60 votes, she noted.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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