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Pa. House, Senate need to work together to rein prescription drug prices | Opinion

One in every two Pennsylvanians cannot afford the medications they need to manage their health

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By Robin Stelly

The Pennsylvania General Assembly has been back in session since Sept. 21.  To date, lawmakers have yet to address an issue that is leaving people throughout the Commonwealth needlessly struggling: out-of-control prescription drug prices.

One in every two Pennsylvanians cannot afford the medications they need to manage their health, according to a study released in 2021 by Altarum’s Healthcare Value Hub.  And regardless of political party,  9 in 10 Pennsylvanians want their lawmakers to take action to lower prescription drug prices, according to the same study.

In the past 12 months alone, the Altarum study showed that one in five Pennsylvania adults has cut pills in half, skipped doses, or left a prescription at the pharmacy, decisions which can lead to health complications that require more expensive care, and even death. Many are choosing between medications and necessities like food, rent or utilities. And a recent survey says that small businesses are putting off growth as they struggle with high healthcare costs.

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As the statewide organizer for the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, an organization that connects people with health insurance, I hear from these Pennsylvanians nearly every day.  Here are a few of their comments made to me in just the past few weeks:

“I have had to cut my grocery purchases in half to pay for medications.” -Adams County, Pa.

“Prescription drug costs are breaking us.” — Wyoming County, Pa.

“One medication that I take is almost $1,200 a month. How do they justify this?” – Perry County, Pa.

“I have worked since I was 9 and now turning 65 with a disability and see no retirement for me because of the costs of my prescriptions.” – Luzerne County, Pa.

Americans pay significantly more for prescription drugs than people in other countries. In fact, U.S. prices were, on average, a staggering 3 times those in other countries, according to a recent report by Rand Corporation comparing drug prices in 32 countries.

And drug prices, which already represent $1 in every $5 dollars spent on healthcare in the US, continue to soar. They rose 159% in the decade leading up to 2018, and continue to rise each year.

Drug companies can raise prices without any reason whatsoever, and they do.  Yet, these same companies continue to make staggering profits. A recent study by West Health Policy Center and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that drug companies could lose $1 trillion in profits and still remain the most profitable industry.

Currently, there is no oversight at either the state or federal level on how drug corporations choose to price life-saving medications.

To achieve meaningful reform, action is needed at both levels of government.

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While the solution to prescription drug pricing reform is hotly debated in Washington, the Pennsylvania General Assembly can and should take action.

Lawmakers from both parties have already introduced legislation in the state Senate and the state House that would create a new independent entity to investigate high drug prices and propose solutions to lower them. While the details of the bills differ, there is broad agreement that such an entity is a critical first step in identifying questionable practices and abuse by drug manufacturers and lowering prices.

Importantly, any legislative solution to the drug pricing crisis must address the underlying problem: the high prices for life-saving medications that are set by drug companies. While legislative solutions that lower what certain consumers pay at the pharmacy may help in the short-term, they will result in higher healthcare premiums in the long-term.

The time for action is now; as long as lawmakers in Harrisburg fail to address this crisis, Pennsylvania families, seniors, and businesses will suffer. Pennsylvania  lawmakers must address this crisis during the current legislative session.

Robin Stelly is the lead organizer for the  Pennsylvania Health Access Network. She writes from Philadelphia. 

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