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Op-Ed: Affordable Prescription Drugs a Human Right

Note: This Op-Ed originally ran in the February 9th 2018 edition of The Daily Record.

Mrs. M is a 65-year-old woman who couldn’t afford medications for her diabetes and heart problems. She began cutting her pills into half, then into thirds and quarters. One day, she suffered a massive heart attack. She was able to be resuscitated, but her heart function is so poor that she can barely walk from her bed to the door without being out of breath. She is now on permanent disability, unable to work, and unable to care for her elderly parents and grandchildren.

This is tragic for so many reasons, not least because her heart attack could have been prevented had she been able to afford her medications.

Mrs. M. is not alone. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in four seniors have trouble paying for their prescriptions. The AARP Public Policy Institute found that nearly 60 pecent of American seniors take at least one prescription drug on a regular basis and the average senior takes four medications on a regular basis. According to AARP, retail prices for widely used prescription drugs increased faster than general inflation in every year from 2006 to 2013 (the last year for which full data are available). These skyrocketing costs directly impact consumer out-of-pocket expenses and contribute to higher health care costs over all.

Thanks to Maryland Health Care for All, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, and a broad coalition of partners, including the Baltimore City Health Department and AARP, Maryland recently became the first state in the country to pass legislation banning prescription drug price gouging by manufacturers of generic and off-patent drugs. This is landmark legislation, and it’s an incredible first step. However, much more needs to be done for our seniors, our families, and our communities.

Across Maryland, and around the country, we are in the middle of an opioid epidemic. In Baltimore City alone, two people per day are dying from overdose. If someone is dying, they can get naloxone, and they will be walking and talking within minutes. However, in Baltimore, we are being priced out of our ability to provide this life-saving antidote. We have just 6,000 units to distribute between now and July. Every day, we have to decide who will receive naloxone and who will go without.

This is the very definition of rationing. With the naloxone that we have, everyday Baltimoreans have saved 1,500 lives in just two years. Imagine how many more lives we can save if naloxone were available at a much discounted rate – as it in other countries.

Proposed legislation

Right now, the Maryland General Assembly is considering two bills that will help to rein in the escalating cost of prescription drugs. The first, sponsored by Sen. Katherine Klausmeier and Del. Eric Bromwell, would prohibit the so-called “gag rule” by which pharmacists are often barred from telling patients about cheaper ways to pay for their prescription drugs (i.e., paying out-of-pocket, rather than through insurance co-pays, or identifying a generic version of the medication).

If successful, Maryland will join six other states – Connecticut, Maine, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Georgia – in providing greater transparency for consumers. This is common sense. Marylanders have a right to information about alternatives that may cost a lot less but be just as effective. We have a right to transparent and accurate information.

Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, would establish a Drug Cost Commission to help us understand why drugs are priced the way they are, and to assess what prices Marylanders should be paying for their life-saving medications. Pharmaceutical companies argue that the market should determine the price of medications, but wealth and ability to pay should not determine whether someone lives. This is one step in the right direction to control the rising cost of prescription drugs.

Polls show the people of Maryland strongly support both of these measures and we are thrilled that the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus has made enactment of both them one of their top legislative priorities for 2018.

We are leaders who, respectively, safeguard the health of 620,000 residents in Baltimore and represent the interests of the 50-plus community and their families across Maryland. We believe that health is a basic human right, and that access to affordable prescription drugs must be part of that fundamental right to well-being.

Every day, we see what happens when people don’t take their medications because they simply can’t afford them. This is a travesty that we can help to prevent, because prescription drug affordability must be a basic human right.

Hank Greenberg is the AARP Maryland state director. Dr. Leana Wen is the commissioner of health in Baltimore City.

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