Clock ticking on lower prescription drug prices

For the past few years, our organization has been hearing from average Marylanders who face a life-and-death dilemma: how to pay for the prescription drugs they need. Drugs don’t work if people can’t afford them.

Their stories are heartbreaking and disturbing. Far too many people in our state struggle to pay for medications as prices continue to soar. Sometimes they are forced to ration their own medications, taking a half-dosage, for example. We have met Marylanders who must choose between paying for medications and paying for food.

As a state, we can do better. That’s why we have been fighting for legislation in Annapolis to create a new public watchdog agency to help control the costs of the most expensive drugs. Our bill would create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board, which would have the authority to establish the costs for certain drugs in Maryland. The goal: establish fair and affordable costs (“Maryland House of Delegates Oks bill to create a prescription drug price board for government employees,” March 27).

There is nothing new about this concept. Already in Maryland, public agencies must approve the cost of things like health insurance or electricity. A public agency sets hospital reimbursement rates — a model hailed nationally for its effectiveness. The proposed Prescription Drug Affordability Board would follow that approach and would act to keep drug costs in check.

Marylanders strongly support this idea. Nearly four in five Marylanders polled recently approved of creating a Prescription Drug Affordability Board. It also has support from a broad coalition composed of hundreds of organizations including the NAACP and AARP. And the bill attracted over 100 co-sponsors in the General Assembly.

The bill as amended in the House of Delegates (HB768, sponsored by Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk) would begin by reviewing affordability issues with high cost drugs and setting upper payment limits for medications purchased by state, county and local governments. This would reduce costs for government, freeing up precious revenues for other needs, including education and public safety. This amended bill requires the board to provide recommendations on how to expand this authority to all purchases of high cost drugs in Maryland.

That’s why seven county executives (Republican and Democrat) and the mayor of Baltimore strongly support the House’s amended bill. Rising drug costs are taking up more and more of their budgets, an unsustainable trend, and they need relief.

Opposing this bill are the big drug manufacturers. They have spread fear about this legislation and are working desperately to stop it. Despite their protests, the bill has been carefully researched and lays out a practical and effective way to control costs of the most expensive drugs.

The reality is that this bill will not hurt drug corporations. Today, they spend lavishly on advertising to boost sales and reap enormous profits. These corporations want to maintain the ability to impose any price hike they want, whether it’s warranted or not, and they don’t consider the impact on average Marylanders who pay for the medications.

The marketplace has failed to stem the soaring costs of drugs, which means the state must take action.

The Prescription Drug Affordability Board is a commonsense solution that will begin to bring down costs for state and local governments. The amended bill includes safeguards that protect the interests of drug manufacturers while simultaneously working to address artificially high drug costs

It’s time for the General Assembly to stand with the people — those across the state who simply can’t afford to pay more for their medications — to make prescription drugs more affordable for Marylanders.

Vincent DeMarco, Baltimore

The writer is president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative.

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