While the Democratic and Republican parties differ on many issues, there’s one thing that we should be able to agree on: People shouldn’t have to choose between paying bills and purchasing life-saving prescription medications.
I have worked on health care issues for many years as a Capitol Hill staffer, think tank policy wonk and advocate for seniors, and I have learned how the cost of health care — especially the cost of prescription drugs — can strain personal finances and threaten public health. I’ve met people who are forced to choose between buying medicine and groceries, and people who skip prescribed doses to make medicine last longer.
Prescription drugs are lifesavers for many people, but they don’t work if people can’t afford them. That's why I am urging Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly to pass legislation to create a Maryland Prescription Drug Affordability Board, which will play a critical role in ensuring that high-cost prescription drugs are affordable to Marylanders.
The bill, introduced by Democratic lead sponsors Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk of Prince George’s County and Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier of Baltimore County and drafted in consultation with the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative and experts at Johns Hopkins University, will establish a public “watchdog” entity to review and set fair and affordable costs for life-saving medicines. The Prescription Drug Affordability Board will have five members appointed by the governor, attorney general and legislative leaders and have the power to review price spikes in drugs already on the market and new medications that have an initial cost above $30,000 per year.
When reviewing drug costs, the board will consider a range of economic factors and allow the pharmaceutical manufacturers to justify existing drug costs. Once a fair payment rate is determined, the board sets an upper limit that applies to all purchasers. This concept of state price review is not new. We already do that for things such as public utilities and health insurance, as well as hospital services.
Having access to life-saving prescription drugs is essential for every individual, yet drug prices are soaring beyond the reach of many. There are an increasing number of tragic stories about individuals who have died because they couldn’t afford their medications.
I recently heard about a 26-year-old Minnesota man, Alec Smith, who fell into a fatal diabetic coma in 2017 because he couldn’t afford his insulin. Like many drugs, insulin’s list price increased 10 times since 2008. Alec’s mother estimates that her son would have had to pay $1,300 for the amount of insulin and supplies to stay healthy — an amount he couldn’t possibly afford as a restaurant manager with no health insurance and earning $35,000 per year.
It’s time we hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable. To protect their profits, some drugmakers game the system to block competitors from making more affordable generic drugs, moves that have generated criticism from the head of the federal Food and Drug Administration. It is unacceptable and unconscionable to keep life-saving drugs out of the hands of people who rely on them. I cannot hear any more stories about people who would still be alive if drugs were priced fairly.
I’m proud that Maryland has worked to protect our citizens and prioritize health care, most recently with the state’s reinsurance program to stabilize the cost of insurance in the individual marketplace. This was a great step that has already led to reduced premiums.
Now it’s time for the General Assembly to put the health of Marylanders first by addressing the prescription drug crisis and supporting the Prescription Drug Affordability Board legislation.
The legislation has already received support from Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh; a bipartisan group of county executives from Montgomery, Prince George’s, Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties; and a broad coalition of groups led by Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative. Leaders from the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, AARP and the NAACP also understand the problem and are making this bill a priority in 2019.
I urge the General Assembly to fight to protect health care for all Marylanders because our citizens deserve to live their healthiest lives.
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings is chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions. Her email is email@example.com.