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Using Savings from Drug Pricing Reform to Expand Medicare – Herb Weiss

By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues

Ahead of President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28 and as the Democratic administration considers policies to slash rising drug costs, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 65-page report finding that the U.S. pays more than two to four times higher prices for a selected sample of 20 single source, brand name drugs than Australia, Canada and France. The latest GAO report, commissioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), found that Americans, suffering from blood clots, bronchitis, emphysema and Hepatitis C, were paying more for life-saving treatments than patients in these industrialized countries. 

“This important GAO study confirms what we all already know: the pharmaceutical industry is ripping off the American people,” said Sen. Sanders in a statement announcing the March 29th release of the GAO report, “Prescription Drugs: US Prices for Selected Brand Drugs Were Higher on Average Than Prices in Australia, Canada and France.”

“The time is long overdue for the United States to do what every major country on earth does: negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies to lower the outrageous price of prescription drugs. I would urge the president to put this proposal in the American Families Plan and use the savings to expand and improve Medicare for older Americans. We can no longer tolerate the American people paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” says the Vermont Senator who chairs the Senate’s Budget Committee.

U.S. Paying Outrageous Drug Prices

The GAO study found that in 2020, the U.S. paid 4.36 times more than France, 4.25 times more than Australia and 2.82 times more than Canada for the selected drugs, which represent a sample of the drugs with the highest Medicare Part D expenditures and use. The researchers noted that the publicly available data for the comparison countries were gross prices that did not reflect potential discounts. As a result, the actual differences between U.S. prices and those of the other countries were likely much larger than GAO estimates.

According to the GAO report, while France and Australia operate universal, publicly funded health systems that include prescription drug coverage, both Canada and the U.S. have a significant number of people who do not have prescription drug coverage. But even when comparing the full cash retail prices of selected drugs, the prices quoted to individuals without prescription drug coverage, GAO found that prices were two to eight times higher in the U.S. than the same drugs from pharmacies in Canada. 

For instance, GAO found that the cash price of Epclusa (28 tablets), which treats Hepatitis C, or an infection that attacks the liver, is $36,743 in the U.S. but $17,023.63 in Canada. The cash price of Harvoni (28 tablets), which also treats Hepatitis C, is $46,570.33 in the U.S. but $19,084.54 in Canada. In another example, GAO cited that the cash price of Incruse Ellipta Inhalation Powder (30 inhalations), which treats chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a group of lung diseases which block airflow and make it difficult to breath, is $411.33 in the U.S. but $53.31 in Canada.

Because France and Australia have universal health systems that cover prescription drugs, Australians would pay up to a $28.09 copay for a month supply of these medicines, while patients in France would pay anywhere from $0 to $34.03 for the drugs. The maximum copay that high income seniors with prescription drug coverage in Ontario, Canada would pay for the drugs is $4.67.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

On April 23, 48, organizations, led by Indivisible, Social Security Works and Public Citizen, called on Biden to include bold drug pricing reforms in American Families Plan to expand Medicare, and the result of a new polls supports this legislative action. 

Drug pricing reform will produce upward of $450 billion in savings over 10 years, note the organizations, urging Biden to use these savings to reinvest in Medicare. The call for adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare, lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 and creating an out-of-pocket cap for medical expenses.

Alongside the letter, the organizations released the findings of a new poll from Data for Progress, widespread public support across party lines for expanding and improving Medicare. The poll’s findings noted that 86% of Americans, including 82% of Republicans, support adding dental, hearing and vision benefits to Medicare. It also found that three-quarters of Democrats, a majority of independents, and nearly half of Republicans support lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55. 

“Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices down saves money for the federal government, which is the largest buyer of prescription drugs in the world,” said Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works. “We must pump those savings back into Medicare to expand eligibility and add benefits that equalize Medicare with private insurance,” he says.

“Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50, capping out-of-pocket costs, and expanding benefits to include dental, hearing, and vision would improve access to care for millions of Americans. Far too many Americans have lost their insurance or put off needed care due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Eagan Kemp, Health Care Policy Advocate for Public Citizen. “The Biden Administration and Congress have a chance to deliver important progress at a crucial time,” he says.

Adds Mary Small, Legislative Director for Indivisible, “With the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic still being felt in our communities, now is a crucial moment to expand public health care coverage and deliver savings on prescription drug prices to the American people. Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 will be an essential step toward reducing the racial health inequities by increasing coverage to communities of color and low-income folks.”  She adds, “Allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and then reinvesting those savings back into the program to expand services further strengthens our path toward universal coverage for all.” 

Last Thoughts

Garnering applause, Biden put high drug costs on his Administration’s radar screen at his recent address before Congress. “Let’s give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices. It won’t just help people on Medicare. It will lower prescription drug costs for everyone,” said the 46th President of the United States. “We’ve talked about it long enough. Democrats and Republicans, let’s get it done this year,” he said.

But actions speak louder than words, say Washington Insiders.  They note that Biden’s American Families Plan, did not include any proposal to slash pharmaceutical costs or lower the Medicare eligibility age. Is it possible for Biden to lower the drug prices in the United States, making the prices more comparable to other industrialized countries and to even expand Medicare, in the face of fierce opposition from Republicans, moderate Senate Democrats and pharmaceutical companies?  

According to the latest KFF Health Tracking Poll released June 3, 2021, the findings indicate that “nearly nine in 10 (88%) favor allowing the federal government to negotiate for lower prices on medications, including three-fourths (77%) of Republicans, nine in 10 independents (89%) and 96% of Democrats.” However, support dwindles “when the public hears argument made by pharmaceutical companies that it could lead to less research and development for new drugs, or that access to newer prescriptions could be limited,” say the researchers.

Will political pressure sway a divided Congress before the upcoming midterm elections to hammer out a bipartisan solution to put the brakes to the nation’s skyrocketing drug costs and to provide more American’s affordable health care through an expanded Medicare program. Its wait and see.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com

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Herb Weiss has enjoyed a distinguished 41 year career in journalism, earning a national reputation as an expert on aging, health care and medical issues. Over 780 articles that he has authored or coauthored have appeared in national, state and local publications. Governor Gina Raimondo appointed Him to the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on aging. Today, Herb’s weekly newspaper column appears in the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket call, two North Rhode Island daily newspapers, and will now run in RINewsToday.com. Herb and his wife, Patty Zacks, reside in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.