The Government is Failing to Make Life Saving Drugs Affordable

April 17, 2020

Many Americans cut doses of non-generic drugs in half or don’t get the refills that they need. Daniel tells the pharmacy to just keep his medication because he can’t afford it even with insurance. Dana is on social security and can’t afford her medication. Marilyn skips her insulin because the cost has become outrageous. There are many, many more stories that are shared by countless people reported by the American Medical Associations website Truth In Rx on how drug-pricing is out of control. But now, all of us will be added to the list of injustices if the COVID-19 vaccine is not affordable for all.

Close image of woman's eyes. She is wearing a medical face mask

On February 26, 2020, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said that he could not assure Americans that the vaccine for COVID-19 would be made affordable to all. He said this publically during questioning by Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky.

This is not a good sign for Americans dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, because even prior to the economic downturn drug-pricing has been out of control. As the pandemic continues to get worse in America, the current healthcare system will not be able to keep up to provide quality, access, affordability, and choice when Americans need it the most.

image of a cell phone displaying New York Times article with the headline U.S. Now Has More Known Cases Than Any Other Country

The evidence prior to COVID-19 for prescription drugs affordability showed contrary to what HHS said was their top priority in 2018. In September 2018, The Oregonian published that over the first seven months of 2018, there were 96 price hikes for every price cut. Despite the fact that in May 2018 Secretary Alex Azar released President Trump’s American Patients First Blueprint. This blueprint was supposed to be “a comprehensive plan to bring down prescription drug prices and out-of-pocket costs.”

Secretary Azar’s words seem like a good sign for the American people, but in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, we all continue to see that affordable medications are not a top priority for the Federal Government.

Every year we see the cost of drugs go up. Secretary Azar, a longtime pharma executive, used the same talking points that we have heard many times over in the same questioning by Illinois Rep. Schakowsky in Feb. 2020. Secretary Azar keeps saying that the government can’t negotiate down the cost for every American because the pharma industry won’t see value in developing the drugs.

An image of a medical researcher in a blue suit with gloves, a hood, a ventilator, and clear face mask working with a pipette

The Federal Government promises one day and explicitly stated in the HHS blueprint that two main strategies for cutting drug prices are “better negotiation and improved competition.” This current administration has claimed that steps need to be put in place “to prevent manufacturer gaming of regulatory processes.”

The Federal Government has said that cutting the red tape and loosening regulations would improve competition and the economy. However, by creating a regulatory loophole for pharmaceutical companies and allowing more mergers and acquisitions, this removes affordability on many drugs, and especially the COVID-19 vaccine if developed. The government and specifically the Executive Branch is holding access, quality, cost, and choice hostage.

A man receiving a vaccine while a multigenerational family watches

We are seeing first hand a lack of transparency, collaboration, and trust between this administration and the American people. The general public that is struggling to get access to quality care and cost-effective care needs members of the community to advocate for health justice.

The American people and politicians on both sides of the aisle should demand that something is done to provide affordable drug pricing for all medications. Not simply with the potential COVID-19 vaccine but with all prescription drugs.

Cami R. Schiel, a registered nurse, and student from BYU Law says, “In a normal market, consumers are well informed about their needs and choices. However, in the pharmaceutical industry, similar transparency is much more difficult due to [how the industry controls] information and control[s] [the conversation] between patient and provider[.] [This] lack of transparent pricing and healthcare's highly inelastic market [is terrible].”

We see that lack of transparency has occurred on both sides of the aisle. Over $20,000,000 of donations from Pharmaceutical and Health Companies went to both Democrat and Republican members of Congress during the 2017-18-election cycle.

This should make us all scratch our heads to say: “What are they not telling us?”

With over billions of dollars spent on lobbying, we can say one thing is for certain, the cost is not an issue for large corporations.

Insulin testing device being operated by gloved hands

Based on the evidence that analyzed Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs by states due to the enactment of federal prescription drug benefit law, known as Medicare ‘Part D,’ we see that state lawmakers had to evaluate and modify their own pharmaceutical assistance programs.

The Federal Government is showing again that the well-being of the American people is not their responsibility as they push the assistance of pharmaceutical costs to state lawmakers. In 2017, 13 states - Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia had no legislation on eligibility, source of assistance, or whether coverage under Federal prescription Drug Benefit Law affects drug coverage.

Only Vermont took a proactive stance and California, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, and Nevada have followed Vermont's lead.

Dr. Seth Whitelaw has a reason for this, “Vermont has a strong activist-history when it comes to targeting the pharmaceutical industry with laws, and Vermont's pharmaceutical pricing legislation combines the elements of transparency with fair pricing.”

We need to invest in transparency and in collaboration to get the affordable healthcare we need to overcome the drug-pricing problem.

We are seeing proposals during COVID-19 and a cry to agencies to work together, to gather and share information, to set priorities for research, and to approve new products. The emergency collaboration means nothing if Americans can’t afford the treatments and preventatives to killer viruses like COVID-19 that are devastating countries and families.

We need to solve the drug-pricing problem and have a new view of the relationship between administrative agencies and innovation incentives without compromising the health of all Americans.

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