AARP Rhode Island will kick off its community discussions on the issue of skyrocketing pharmaceutical drug prices in the state tonight at Chelo’s at 2225 Post Road from 5:30 to 7 p.m., with the goal of hopefully inspiring state legislative action to address the concerns raised by attendees who have been affected by the high cost of prescription medication.
“The U.S. pays the highest prices in the world for medicine and prescription drugs,” said John DiTomasso Associate State Director of Advocacy for AARP Rhode Island. “The problem is you have so many people in this country – and most of them are seniors, but it's not limited to seniors – who have to choose between buying food and paying for drugs.”
“Medications don’t work if people can’t afford them,” DiTomasso said.
In an op-ed that ran in the Oct. 10 edition of the Beacon, AARP Rhode Island Director Kathleen Connell outlined how between 2012 and 2017, the average annual cost of brand-name prescription drugs in the state increased by 58 percent. She included more specific examples such as Revlimid, a drug for treating cancer, going from over $147,000 a year to over $247,000 a year. Diabetes medication Lantus went from $2,900 to $4,700, while the heart disease medication Aggrenox went from $3,000 to $5,900.
“It’s a well-known fact that Big Pharma has raised drug prices with impunity,” Connell wrote.
DiTomasso pointed to how pharmaceutical companies will often claim increasing drug costs are a result of expensive research and development necessary in creating new medications. That doesn’t explain why insulin, a drug that hasn’t changed much in the approximately 100 years since its development, has tripled in price from 2002 to 2013.
“What's even more problematic is if you compare their marketing and advertisement budget, the marketing and advertisement budget is more than research and development,” he said, adding that pharmaceutical companies have a financial incentive to develop expensive drugs for less common, chronic conditions that patients will need to take for long periods of time – in some cases for the remainder of their lives.
“The root cause of the problem is clear: the high prices of prescription drugs set by pharmaceutical companies when they first come on the market, which then increase faster than inflation year after year,” writes Connell.
Senior citizens are then victimized by the unaffordable drug prices, DiTomasso contends. The average senior citizen on Medicare’s Part D takes about 4.5 different drugs each month, and over two-thirds of the senior citizen population have two or more concurrent chronic illnesses. And yet, they must often try to afford expensive medication on an average income of about $26,000 a year.
“You can see where when these drugs get so expensive, people have to decide between paying for groceries and paying for prescription drugs,” DiTomasso said. “We’ve heard of people breaking pills in half to try and make it last…many of them are told to take specific medications for heart disease or cancer, then they go to doctor to get substitute drug that may not be as effective, but is more affordable.”
While the issue is complex and involves large forces, including pharmaceutical companies and their subsidiaries who manufacture medicine and insurance companies that also play a role in the cost of pharmaceutical drugs, DiTomasso said the point of the community discussions is to focus in on the real people who must deal with the repercussions of expensive medication, and hopefully prompt state legislators – who have been invited to join the discussion – to enact consumer-friendly policies.
He mentioned that 25 states passed a total of 37 bills in 2019 related to lowering the cost of prescription drugs. These could be anything from seeking to make drug prices more transparent, to allowing the importation of medication from certain countries to lower prices and addressing harmful consumer practices such as “gag clauses,” which prevent pharmacists from informing a customer that they would save money by purchasing a medication out of pocket rather than their insurance company.
“They're all possibilities,” DiTomasso said. “We’ll have to see what would fit best in Rhode Island, and in order to do that, that's what the community conversations are for.”
In addition to the Chelo’s conversation tonight, AARP Rhode Island is planning three more such conversations, one scheduled for Oct. 29 at Jacky’s Galaxie at 1488 Mineral Spring Avenue in North Providence and two to be announced in the East Bay and Aquidneck Island areas.
Those interested in attending the event should register for free by going to AARP.cvent.com/StopRXGreedWarwick or by calling 877-926-8300. You don’t need to be an AARP member to join the discussion.