The 20 most popularly prescribed drugs in America have increased 12 percent a year for each of the last five years, six of them by 100 percent.
Hearing that fact gave Ralph Zovich, who’s approaching retirement age, an idea: “Let the government declare those 20 ‘essential for life,’” and give the feds immediate authority to negotiate the price.
“Also authorize the IRS to audit those drug makers. Put the fear of God into them.”
Zovich gave that idea to his U.S. senator, Chris Murphy, at a “listening session” Murphy held Wednesday at the East Shore Senior Center on Townsend Avenue.
Some 50 older folks gathered to wrestle with the seemingly intractable problem of the rising costs of prescription drugs.
Murphy and the panel of experts he had assembled offered no silver bullets, but Murphy promised to fight for change..
His panel included State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, state Healthcare Advocate Ted Doolittle, and representatives from the state hospital, medical and pharmaceutical organizations, and Yale-New Haven Hospital.
After Murphy identified the elephant in the room — “the pharmaceutical companies have owned Washington, D.C. for the last 20 years — the other panelists joined in.
“What do you do” when you need to restrain prices without repressing research? Murphy asked rhetorically. His suggestion for now: Support the recently introduced Connecticut House Bill 5384.
Lembo said the bill’s critics have called it “guilting into better pricing. He said it requires companies publicly to explain an unreasonable price increase.
Doolittle called attention to recent recommendations from Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s health care, chief of which was a drug review board to analyze all out-of-line pricing.
The pharmacists’ association representative, Margharita Giuliano, called for more transparency and “for following the dollar to understand what you pay, and audits are necessary.”
All bemoaned the byzantine complexity of drug pricing, a condition that benefits drug makers not consumers. They bemoaned the lack of transparency in just how much drug companies spend on real research and development and how much on those commercials targeted at the many people in the senator’s attentive audience.
Tellingly, the pharmacists, doctors, and representative from the state hospital associations, while all endorsing such suggestions for more transparency, all said they have comparatively little control of the situation. They said larger solutions must come on the federal level, as Murphy had suggested.
“Have the pharma books been opened?” declared a retired economist from Branford. ” . and how about allowing importation?” Murphy replied, “At the very least we should allow Americans to bring drugs in from Canada.”
Robert A. Fiore, the president and founder of the Connectiuct Epilepsy Advocate, Inc., pressed the panel for federal standards related to “formularies,” the protocols by which generic drugs are first used, and then, if they don’t work, are replaced by increasingly expensive prescribed drugs.
Eric Tichy of Yale-New Haven Hospital replied, “Epilepsy is complex. Yes, for some patients the generics don’t work. Yes, we need a better process when generics don’t work.”
One woman present raised the delicate issue of how to lower prices on the more common drugs while not repressing or even eliminating other even exotic drugs that are saving lives. She described a friend on a two-pill-a-day prescription that is now up to $15,000 per month in cost. “It’s an obscene amount,” she said. On the other hand, if policies to lower other prices result in this drug no longer being made, her friend could die.
Murphy said he liked Ralph Zovich’s idea about the 20 most used prescribed drugs. He also warmed to a second Zovich notion: Raise the cap on the social security payroll tax, so the system would have more money and be able provide better and more securely for seniors. After all, Murphy said, you use social security to pay for your drugs.
He concluded that while the federal government must take a lead, there are also state and private ideas as well. “This is an important battle for me. Bottom line: We have to do better,” he concluded, to warm applause from the seniors.
As the meeting concluded and vans pulled up on Townsend Avenue to ferry some of the seniors home, Ralph Zovich said he liked that Murphy had warmed to his idea.
“I love giving suggestions to elected officials,” he said.
Will it make any difference? “If he can get a majority of senators to agree,” Zovich answered.
Robert Fiore, of the epilepsy organization, was less sanguine. He said that for years he and his group have been sending drafts of bills pertaining to the formularies for drugs used to treat epilepsy to his elected officials on the state and national level, without the progress he has been hoping for.
“You can say the right things, but what are you going to do about it,” he said. “I’m disgusted.”