Marion Lennberg: Lee should put his constituents ahead of Big Pharma

Drug companies have money and lobbyists and don’t need our senator’s help.

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File) In this July 10, 2018 file photo, bottles of prescription medicines ride on a conveyor belt at a pharmacy warehouse in Florence, N.J.

It can be hard to remember, as we’re bombarded with partisan banter, half-truths and non-stop propaganda in election years, that most Americans actually agree on a fair number of basic things. Lowering the price of prescription drugs and making health care more affordable is among them. That’s why we should all be celebrating the recent progress Congress made by passing a law that will make prescriptions more affordable.

Personally, I’m relieved that lawmakers have finally taken action on prescription drug prices in Medicare. I have two prescriptions, one for an inhaler that costs $96 a month and the other for a blood thinner, Eliquis, that costs about $400 for a 90-day supply.

Right now, I can afford these medicines on my retirement income, but prices increase so fast, they may outpace my resources in the future. The price of Eliquis, for instance, recently increased faster than the inflation rate along with many other drugs in Medicare Part D. The truth is that when it comes to setting and raising prices, drug corporations have had unilateral control while seniors and patients have no say.

But no more. The Inflation Reduction Act stops drug corporations from raising their prices faster than inflation, lowers prices through Medicare negotiations and creates historic caps on out-of-pocket costs which up until now have been unlimited for many Medicare enrollees. This is the most progress that federal lawmakers have made on reducing drug prices in decades. It will help millions of people who need medicine to manage their health but right now have to ration, skip doses, or go into debt to get their prescriptions.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to see Lee lead the effort to repeal these reforms before they are even fully implemented.

Lee’s concerns about “price controls” are misguided. The fact is that for decades drug corporations have enjoyed monopoly control over prices – setting exorbitantly high launch prices like $156,000 a year for a new ALS drug – and raising prices anytime they want. Allowing the drug corporations to stay in charge of prices rather than enabling Medicare to negotiate prices hurts patients and denies millions of people access to medicines they need. Rather than protecting the drug corporations’ power to charge us any price they want, Lee should be supporting the effort to make more medicines affordable for people of all ages.

Drug corporations like to tout innovation as a reason they oppose the new law, but the reality is that new drugs can’t help people if no one can afford them. Many of these new drugs are invented partially through taxpayer-funded research at universities and agencies, but there’s no assurance that taxpayers can even benefit from these discoveries because the prices aren’t negotiated.

Repealing Medicare negotiations and the other provisions to lower costs for patients is at odds with what average Americans actually want when it comes to drug pricing. There has long been a public consensus that Medicare should negotiate drug prices with big corporations rather than let the pharmaceutical companies decide those prices unilaterally. Other agencies, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, already negotiate drug prices with the corporations, saving taxpayers and patients half of what Medicare pays for some of the same drugs.

Polls show that whether you vote Democrat, independent or Republican, chances are that you support Medicare negotiations: lowering drug prices is not a partisan issue. Politicians from both parties, including President Trump, have promised to lower drug prices through negotiations over the years but none delivered until now.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 5 to 7 million Medicare enrollees each year will benefit from Medicare negotiations once the law is fully implemented. The prohibition on raising prices faster than inflation in Medicare Part D has already gone into effect. If the rest is implemented, about 11,000 Utahns who already pay over $2,000 out of pocket for medicines every year will see their costs go down and 300,000 Utahns like me can rest assured that they will not ever pay an unlimited amount for their medicines–that includes basic drugs like Insulin which will be capped at $35 per month.

I hope that Lee, who I have always respected even when I did not agree with his policy positions, will reconsider his support for repealing a law that many of us have been waiting on for years.

The drug corporations have thousands of lobbyists and unlimited resources to fight against Medicare negotiations. They don’t need Lee or anyone else to protect their profit margins by blocking this law. Utah seniors and their families are depending on all our elected leaders to put our needs ahead of political partisanship and corporate greed.

Marion Lennberg

Marion Lennberg lives in Salt Lake City, is an active member of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church and retired from the University of Utah.