UTICA — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, a member of the Senate Aging Committee, visited the Resource Center for Independent Living in Utica Thursday to announce a package of three bills that she says would help reduce the cost and improve access of prescription drugs.
“This is a health crisis,” Gillibrand announced at the podium. “Health is a right, not a privilege.”
Over the years, prescription drug costs have become increasingly unaffordable, particularly for older Americans — who account for one in five Oneida County residents — who rely on Medicare yet still struggle to afford medications on a fixed income. Also, several people with disabilities, like those served by RCIL, rely on drug therapies to manage chronic conditions, but have been overwhelmed by increasing prices.
The senator said meanwhile, drug manufacturers continue to spike the price of their medications despite one in four Americans unable to afford their medications. Nearly a third of adults say they have not taken their medicine as prescribed in the past 12 months due to costs.
“Americans pay the highest prices for prescription drugs,” said Gillibrand, noting that 30% of people have reported not taking their prescription drugs due to the cost, and with the loss of jobs, work hours and an economy impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, that problem is only becoming more prevalent.
The package of bills includes: The Prescription Drug Price Relief Act to level the market for Americans purchasing prescription drugs by pegging the price in the U.S. to the median price in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan; The Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Act to direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs under Medicare Part D; and The Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act to allow patients, pharmacists and wholesalers to import safe, affordable medicine from Canada and other major countries.
“As New Yorkers face growing health challenges and economic hardship in the wake of the pandemic, they are being forced to make decisions between picking up their drugs and buying groceries or keeping the lights on. And while people struggle to access the medications they need, the five largest pharmaceutical companies in the country are making tens of billions of dollars in profits,” said Sen. Gillibrand. “As a member of the Aging Committee, reducing prescription drug prices for our seniors is one of my top priorities. That is why I am proud to announce my support for this legislative package that will help us reduce the cost of prescription drugs and make sure that everyone can access the medications they need.”
Zvia McCormick, CEO of RCIL, said addressing health care costs, particularly prescription drug costs, is crucial to the advancement of access to health-related services for individuals with disabilities and of those who are living in poverty.
“This group of bills has our full support and RCIL thanks Senator Gillibrand for being a champion of this critical legislation,” said McCormick.
Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, D-119, Marcy, said seniors and those suffering from chronic conditions should not have to choose between their needed medications and being able to put food on the table.
“COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our communities and created widespread economic fallout, making it even more difficult for hardworking Mohawk Valley families to pay the spiraling costs of prescription drugs,” the assemblywoman said. “This legislation represents a huge step forward in the fight to ensure everyone can access lifesaving medication. I want to applaud Senator Gillibrand for her tireless advocacy on this critical affordability issue, and I’ll do everything I can in the Legislature to support and complement these measures.”
Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri he also commends Gillibrand for her efforts and noted that residents should never have to choose paying for food or their bills over taking care of their health.
“The increase cost of prescription drugs has a tremendous impact on the quality of life for millions of Americans, especially our elderly population. The Department of Health and Human Services should be equipped with every tool and resource to effectively negotiate lower drug prices for our senior citizens, like it is for Medicaid recipients and our veterans,” said Mayor Palmieri. “I commend Senator Gillibrand for her leadership on this important issue and her continued advocacy on behalf of our most vulnerable residents.”
Under current law, the secretary of HHS is prohibited from negotiating lower drug prices on behalf of Medicare Part D beneficiaries. In contrast, other government programs, like Medicaid and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), are allowed to negotiate. According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, Medicare paid twice as much for the same prescription drugs as VA in 2017.
In 2020, five of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. made $44.9 billion in profits. That same year, in the midst of a twin public health and economic crisis, drug makers raised their prices of more than 860 prescription drugs by 5 percent, on average. In 2018, the average annual cost of therapy for widely used specialty drugs was about $79,000. This is more than twice the median income for people on Medicare and more than three and half times the average Social Security retirement benefit.
Asked why such legislation was just coming to the forefront, Gillibrand said similar proposals were previously not supported by the Trump administration and issues with battling the opioid epidemic and prescription drug addictions had taken priority, and that rising prescription drugs had become a growing issue during the pandemic.