Commentary: Now is the time for prescription drug reform

By Dr. Al Gross
For The Cordova Times

If you’ve ever had trouble paying for prescription medication either for yourself or for your family, regardless whether you are insured or not, you are not alone. Americans pay at least three times more for medications than people in other countries.

As the cost of lifesaving medications like insulin and cancer drugs have skyrocketed, people in America face impossible tradeoffs, like deciding whether to pay rent or to purchase the medications that keep them alive, or to pay for food for their family.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the inequities in our health system, and now more than ever, we must be working together to lower health care costs for everyone so that our society can rebound, and businesses can grow. And, in particular, we should be focusing on and trying to help communities disproportionately impacted by the high cost of drugs: seniors, women of color, and even children, as these groups are especially vulnerable to these skyrocketing costs.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Americans should have access to affordable medications like people have in most other developed countries. A common asthma inhaler, for example, costs $2.50 in Spain but $250 in America. One milligram of epinephrine costs pennies to produce but sells for $500 as an EpiPen. Something is seriously wrong with this price gouging scenario and it is hurting both our democracy and our society. We aren’t really free at all when healthcare costs dominate and control our decisions so overwhelmingly in this country. Something has to change.

Working to lower the cost of prescription drugs is more than just the right thing to do – it’s overwhelmingly popular with voters across the political spectrum. A January 2021 Morning Consult poll found that 96% of voters said lowering drug prices is an important challenge facing Americans.

In late April, House Democrats reintroduced HR 3, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act. This bill would allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices on behalf of all Americans, not just for those on Medicare, and would be the single most effective way to reduce drug prices. It also establishes strong protections against price gouging and redirects more funding to the National Institutes of Health for life-saving research and development. Finally, HR 3 would also penalize drug companies that increase prices faster than the rate of inflation, a shockingly common practice.

Insights from a Gallup survey show the American public supports the provisions in HR 3 meant to lower the cost of prescription drugs. Separate polling conveys that 93% of respondents – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, support giving Medicare the power to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices.

It is disheartening to know there are so many Americans who end up rationing their medications or delay seeking care because the costs are just too prohibitive. Legislation like HR 3 would help change that reality for millions of people and this reform is long overdue. With President Biden’s support, we can get this done. Now is the time for Congress to take bold action and pass this bill.

Al Gross is a lifelong Alaskan, orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman, He also ran as an independent in the U.S. Senate race in 2020.