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Harford executive, Maryland Prescription Drug Affordability Board say public input is crucial as it works to curb costs of medication

Maryland is the first state in the nation to create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board — a body charged with reviewing the rising cost of prescription drugs and making recommendations to the Maryland General Assembly on how they can be made more affordable — but input from consumers is crucial as board members and their supporters continue to visit communities around the state.

Representatives of the PDAB, created via legislation approved in the General Assembly in 2019, interacted with Harford County residents virtually on Monday to answer their questions about the board and its mission.

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Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who has been a key supporter of creating the board, discussed how prescription drug costs increase each year for county employees and retirees, including a average increase of 12.2 percent last year.

“Our work with the Prescription Drug Affordability Board is to bring attention and get out into the community, so that we can talk about and find solutions to these [cost] increases,” he said.

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Glassman, a Republican, stressed that where a person lives in Maryland or their political affiliation does not matter when they pay for their prescriptions at the pharmacy.

“This issue cuts across many families, different [party] registrations, geographical regions, so it’s important that we all come together to find a solution for these rising costs,” he said.

Representatives of the five-member board, which is led by Chair Van Mitchell, a former state delegate and Maryland secretary of health, have been holding community forums since the start of this year — Glassman attended a Howard County forum in January.

The forums were held in person until the COVID-19 pandemic began, but the board is still meeting with Maryland residents virtually. The Harford County forum, held via Zoom on Monday afternoon, drew more than 100 viewers, according to organizers.

“We’re thrilled that County Executive Glassman has provided such wonderful information that convinced the legislature to enact this law, and also that the board can use to see how high cost drugs are affecting and hurting county governments, but we need to hear from individuals like yourselves,” Vincent DeMarco, president of the nonprofit Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, told meeting participants.

People can visit a Health Initiative web page to submit input to the board at healthcareforall.com/rxinput; they also can visit the PDAB website. Glassman also encouraged Harford residents to contact him via email so “you can share your story with me here at the county, and I can make sure I can get your story back down to Annapolis.”

“This is very, very important, ladies and gentlemen, because the board’s charge is to make prescription drugs more affordable for Marylanders,” DeMarco said.

Two legislators who sponsored the bills that were enacted in the General Assembly to create the board, Democratic Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, who represents Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, and Democratic Sen. Brian Feldman, of Montgomery County, also were on hand for the forum.

Pena-Melnyk discussed how she and her colleagues heard from many Marylanders in 2019 about how they had to choose whether to pay their rent or mortgage, buy food or pay for their medications.

“That is not right, not in a country like this, not in a country like ours,” she said of the United States.

Feldman noted how the bill creating the board passed the legislature in 2019 and a second bill, establishing a funding mechanism for its operations by levying fees, was passed by the General Assembly this year. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the second bill, however, which Feldman said was a “shock,” since no one testified in opposition to it, and it passed the Senate unanimously.

Feldman expects that overriding the governor’s veto will be one of the first orders of business for the Senate during its 2021 session.

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The legislators appeared along with board Chair Mitchell, Jim Gutman, a volunteer advocate with AARP Maryland and Larry Zarzecki, who has testified before legislative committees about his struggles to afford prescription medication to treat a neurological condition.

Zarzecki said he pays about $3,000 a month for 10 medications, with an EpiPen being the most expensive at a $250 copay. He has withdrawn $7,000 from his IRA so far this year to help with prescription drug costs, and he noted he will have to pay taxes on those withdrawals next year.

“People, I challenge you, please help me, help yourselves, save a life,” Zarzecki said, encouraging people to share their stories. “It may be your friends, it may be one of your grandchildren, it may be one of your children.”

Zarzecki’s testimony helped convince the General Assembly to enact the law creating the Prescription Drug Affordability Board, DeMarco noted.

“Please take seriously what Larry has said, your stories matter,” DeMarco told viewers. “Van Mitchell and his colleagues on the board really want to hear, how are specific drugs hurting individual Marylanders?”

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