Wyden and Merkley Seek To Cap Drug Costs for Seniors

Oregon’s two U.S. senators stumped for plans Wednesday to cap prescription drug costs for seniors and renewed the call for Medicare to negotiate drug prices, a longtime Democratic priority that has been endorsed by all three remaining major presidential candidates.

“These prescription drug costs are just clobbering people, especially the elderly,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, the state’s senior Democratic senator.

Wyden explained that unlike individual health plans sold since the Affordable Care Act, there is no cap on out-of-pocket expenses for the Medicare Part D prescription drug plans. His legislation would cap the annual amount at $7,500, a level reached by 2.9 million Americans in 2013, or roughly 36,000 Oregonians.

“What you’re really still facing is medical bankruptcy,” chimed in Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon’s junior Democratic senator.

“A lot of the private health plans [due to the Affordable Care Act ]are already doing what we’re  advocating with Medicare,” Wyden said.

Getting Republicans on board may be tough — although the Senate Finance Chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, joined Wyden in excoriating Gilead Sciences for its profit-driven mentality toward the price of Hepatitis C medications, Grassley has been the chief opponent of allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

“Hopefully, they’re feeling the pressure from folks back home and hopefully they’ll come to the table,” Merkley told The Lund Report.

The two senators, along with Oregon House Health Chairman Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, spoke briefly with reporters in downtown Portland at Central Drugs Pharmacy, which has been on the front lines serving senior citizens who skip prescriptions they cannot afford.

“We see people almost daily trying to decide what to spend on drugs and what to spend on food,” said Shelley Bailey, the pharmacy manager.

Bailey told The Lund Report that as the year goes along — and seniors’ prescription assistance runs out — prescriptions that are auto-filled are not picked up, indicating consumers were skipping prescriptions, often for chronic conditions like diabetes.

Greenlick has put his weight behind significant changes at the state level, enlisting Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, to spearhead a bipartisan prescription drug task force. The health chairman said that group would begin to debate concrete proposals in June.

“We have to take care of this at the state level as well,” said Greenlick. He noted the unhappy dilemma of life-saving drugs sold by companies that “essentially rape the public because of their predatory price-mechanisms.”

State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, an osteopathic physician, earlier told The Lund Report that he had patients once again seeking drugs in Canada to get around the high cost of U.S. prescriptions, a phenomenon that led to the passage of Medicare Part D in 2003.

Greenlick said he told Nosse to “seek a revolutionary answer,” and he did not want a consensus resolution, despite asking Oregon PhRMA lobbyist Jim Gardner to sit on the task force.

That may yet be a hard sell. The Oregon Legislature, like the U.S. Congress, iswell-oiled with large campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, which has succeeded in preventing any serious price controls or negotiating power for Medicare. Prescription drug costs as a result are higher in the United States than anywhere in the world, even as Congress has twice passed legislation that would have already given the industry a windfall: the Medicare drug program and Obamacare.

In 2007, the U.S. House passed a bill giving Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices, but Senate Republicans filibustered the bill. Six Republicans broke ranks to support it, but just one, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, remains in office, and the caucus has grown increasingly conservative.

In 2009 and 2010, the Democrats missed an opportunity to include the provision in the Affordable Care Act, undermining the seriousness of their efforts.

But at least on the campaign trail, both Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back the legislation, as does real estate mogul Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, giving the legislation new life, along with on-the-ground furor from citizens unable to afford their necessary prescriptions.

A 2015 study from Public Citizen and Canada’s Carleton University showed that Medicare could save $16 billion if it could negotiate drug prices. And the high costs are not just for Medicare — U.S. insurers on average paid two to nine times as much for certain drugs as their European counterparts.

The autoimmune drug Enbrel costs $2,225 in the United States, versus $1,117 in Britain and $1,017 in Switzerland. Even common pills like acid-reflux drug Nexium costs $215 in the United States versus $58 in Spain and just $23 for the same dosage in The Netherlands, according to CNN Money.

“Many of these drugs are based on research that we taxpayers paid at our universities,” Merkley said. “Medicare has to take whatever price they can get. That’s an invitation for exploitation.”