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Discussion on Prescription Drug Costs Leaves Panelists Looking for Answers

by | May 18, 2016 4:30am
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Posted to: Business, Consumer Protection, Equality, Ethics, Health Care, Insurance

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State officials, doctors, and pharmaceutical experts held a forum Tuesday to, in the words of one of the panelists, start a conversation on how to stem “the soaring cost of prescription drugs” in Connecticut.

Dr. Henry Jacobs, president of the Connecticut State Medical Society, was the panelist who made the comment about the “soaring costs,” and he added another sobering statement: “Twenty percent of the cancer patients in this country are choosing to die rather than have their families pay for (drug) programs that are unaffordable.”

Jacobs said the cost of drugs for some cancer patients can run “$300,000 to $400,000,” adding many don’t have the type of insurance coverage that covers those costs.

The forum, entitled Connecticut Pharmaceutical Forum: Access, Affordability & Better Health, was held at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

One of the panelists was state Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who Jacobs termed a “health care hero” for his efforts to keep medical and drug costs under control for state residents.

Lembo said what was most alarming to him is that “pharmacy prices have increased at higher rates than medical costs.”

Victoria Veltri, State Healthcare Advocate and another panel member, added: “The consumer is just stuck; they have no bargaining power.”

Also on the panel were representatives of the drug companies, who many fault for the price inflation of prescription drugs.

Tom Brownlie, a senior manager of U.S. policy for Pfizer, told those at the forum that getting firm, consistent data on the price of prescription drugs is a difficult exercise because the vast majority of “brand” drugs eventually become “generics,” which are then sold at a much lower price to the consumer.

“There is a misconception that drug prices are going to break the bank,” Brownlie said. “First, drug prices are only 10 percent of the cost of a person’s health care. Secondly, 90 million people in the United States take a generic drug that originated from a Pfizer brand. Those generics cost pennies on the dollar.”

Brownlie and other drug company representatives on the panel stressed that when brand drug patents expire and can be sold as generics, prices drop.

But not everyone on the panel bought that argument.

C. Michael White, pharmacy practice department head at the UConn School of Pharmacy, said that while it is true that 9 out of 10 drugs eventually become generics, “There has been consolidation in the generic drug industry and prices are no longer dropping because of that.”

One of the big reasons that drug prices are skyrocketing, according to Dr. Troyen Brennan, executive vice president and chief medical officer for CVS Health, is that “we haven’t found a way to control the launch price” when new brand drugs hit the market.

Brennan, another panelist, said new, expensive brand drugs that have hit the market the past few years for patients being treated for hepatitis and cholesterol have caused a spike in overall drug data pricing statistics in Connecticut and across the country.

Brennan added that he doesn’t see a quick fix to the problem.

“We have an aging population and a health care system that we simply won’t be able to afford in 5-to-10 years,” Brennan said. We need to find ways to reduce the overall cost of health care.”

Lembo, after listening to all the panelists discuss why drug prices are so high, said: “I’m a little more confused then when I came in” to the forum.

“The boat is sinking,” Lembo said. “We’re screwed. What do we do?”

White answered that there are countries that have a “very hard cut-off” in their health care systems as to what drugs hit the market place and are available for patient use. In layman’s terms, White explained, “It is an access versus cost containment” formula that isn’t currently in place in the United States.

Expensive drugs that would only help a small group of people, in other countries, aren’t sold, White said.

“What’s really at work here is that we are victims of our own success,” White added. “Years ago people were dying. Now they are not dying — and that’s great. But the fact that people are living longer means there are other downstream costs that are inevitable.”

Tara Ryan, vice president for federal affairs of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), tried to provide an answer to Lembo’s, “What do we do” question: “We need to have a conversation on the state level with all the parties involved, legislators, drug companies, officials, hospitals. We need to get going on that.” Ryan said. “We know the conversation isn’t going to happen on the national level. It needs to start here.”

The panel was interrupted by a fire alarm in the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday.

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