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How Big Price Hikes on Prescription Drugs Hurt Everyone in Minnesota

woman sits by window at home
Janice Allen, a retired attorney at her home in Minnetonka, worried that the high cost of her cancer medication would passed on to her colleagues through higher premiums.
Photo by Ackerman + Gruber

Janice Allen spent almost four years on a specialized cancer medication with a price tag of more than $8,000 a month. When she considered forgoing the drug, against her doctor’s recommendation, it wasn’t because she could no longer afford it.

Even though her insurance covered all but her $100-per-month copay, Allen, 68, of Minnetonka, was “keenly aware” that the cost of her drug would be passed on to her colleagues in the form of higher premiums.

Too many people don’t see that uncontrolled drug price hikes hurt everyone, said Allen, a retired attorney for Anoka County. “If more people considered this, perhaps they would be more motivated to insist on changes.”

Allen joined other AARP members at a recent public forum in St. Paul focused on finding solutions to rising prescription-drug costs. AARP Minnesota plans to circulate stories like hers to help persuade lawmakers to pass legislation aimed at curbing prices.

A study conducted by the AARP Public Policy Institute found that over a four-year period beginning in 2015, the price of 267 widely used brand-name prescription drugs increased, on average, by 50 percent.

These hikes drive up insurance premiums and government spending on Medicare and Medicaid, the study noted, increasing costs for all Americans.

“If you are 7 or 70, you are hit by this crisis. But it has been our seniors on the very forefront of demanding change,” state Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) told about 100 people at the forum.

Prodding Congress

Nationally, AARP is calling on Congress to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription-drug prices, to cap out-of-pocket costs and to improve access to less expensive generic medications. To learn more about that effort, go to aarp.org/rx.

On the state level, AARP Minnesota supports creating a commission to regulate drug prices, enhanced bulk purchasing to improve the state’s purchasing power and caps on consumers’ costs.

AARP Minnesota is asking members to contact their lawmakers, write letters to the editor, share AARP posts and tweets on social media (@aarpmn on Twitter and facebook.com/AARPMinnesota) and tell their drug-price stories by emailing aarpmn@aarp.org.

On April 28, AARP will hold a rally at the state capitol to demand lower drug prices.

“We know the pharmaceutical industry is a formidable opponent,” said Mary Jo George, AARP Minnesota director of advocacy. “That’s why we have to really invest some of our resources and step up our game.”

Allen was diagnosed in 2016 with a cancerous tumor on her stomach lining. She was put on the drug imatinib, and after the tumor was removed, her doctor recommended that she continue taking the medication as a preventive measure.

Allen balked: “I didn’t want to do something that would cost the current and retired employees of Anoka County more money.”

In 2001, a year’s supply of imatinib was $26,000, but by 2016, the annual price had surged to $146,000. A generic version in Canada cost $8,800.

Allen’s doctor convinced her that “it could still be more cost effective to take the medication.” Today she is cancer free.

Her story shows that “asking insurers to limit copays is good, but it’s not doing anything to lower the actual cost,” George said.

Pamela Schmid is a writer living in St. Paul.

More on drug prices

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