This morning, the Atlantic Magazine held a forum titled “At What Cost? An Atlantic Forum on Drug Prices.” The event was underwritten by the pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) Express Scripts, but it had some useful information. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), one of the champions for lower drug prices, spoke about her bills, and offered some thoughtful insights into how legislation might pass Congress.
Senator Klobuchar began with a statement that high drug prices are a more important issue than ever before. 1 out of 4 Americans have either cut their prescription drugs in half, skipped taking medications, or otherwise avoided the prescriptions they need because of drug costs. This crisis is systemic—Martin Shkreli is an odious man, but he is just the tip of the iceberg. Privately, she told us, many Republican members of Congress are worried about drug prices and saying that something has to be done.
She came prepared with a ready list of solutions: the CREATES Act, which would end regulatory abuses and promote access to generic drugs, an end to pay-for-delay (in which brand-name companies pay their generic rivals not to bring lower-cost alternative drugs to market), two bills that would allow Medicare Part D to negotiate lower drug prices, and a bill with Senator John McCain that would allow importation of cheaper drugs from other countries. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa supports the CREATES Act and believes that it will pass; the challenge is to get the bill out of committee and to the Senate floor for a vote.
Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support congressional action to reduce drug prices. Both rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans agree, and public pressure is growing on members of Congress to do something. Klobuchar suggested that these bills will most likely advance as amendments to other, larger health care bills, and urged the attendees at the forum to keep advocating for reform. The more people talk about specific proposals to reduce drug prices, the better.
Other panelists offered similar insights. Matt Eyles of America’s Health Insurance Plans observed that our drug system has a massive price problem. Unit prices and launch prices for drugs are far too high and we have market exclusivity periods and patents that are too long. Since there are few regulations to lower the cost of drugs, pharmaceutical companies feel they can charge whatever the market will power. The only check on their greed is public opinion, which can be mobilized in some particularly notable cases of price gouging. And Steve Miller, the chief officer of the PBM Express Scripts, claimed that PBMs were lowering drug prices, but most people in the audience looked skeptical.
After months of wasted time and effort on health care repeal, Congress now has a chance to curb high drug prices. They should seize this moment.