BALTIMORE — A coalition of progressive health advocates last week called on all candidates for governor and the Maryland General Assembly to support their proposal to create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board.
The announcement came just a day after Ben Jealous, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, showed his support for the campaign and announced his own plan to reduce drug prices. Both proposals essentially look to create a watchdog to oversee prescription drug prices and ensure there are no surprise price increases.
Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, is known for a price hike of Daraprim, a drug commonly used to treat AIDS-related illnesses. In 2015, under Shkreli, Turing acquired Daraprim and increased its price by more than 5,000 percent — from $13.50 to $750 per pill. The drug price generally remains the same, though some patients and hospitals receive discounts.
Akil Patterson, advocacy consultant for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said last week that this board would be an immense relief for people like those affected by the Daraprim increase.
“Luckily enough, our foundation is able to cover the cost of life-saving medications for our clients,” Patterson said. “But what happens…if they have to find the medication on their own? Where do they go?”
Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative — a consumer group advocating more affordable and better access to health care in Maryland — called drug affordability a “life and death issue.” The initiative established the Health Care for All Coalition, which held the news conference last week.
“The bottom line is that many Marylanders simply cannot afford the medicines they absolutely depend on,” said DeMarco. “Prescription drugs don’t work if people can’t afford them. Our plan to create a new affordability board promises to bring down costs and should be a priority for the next General Assembly session.”
DeMarco was joined by representatives from several advocacy groups, including the NAACP, Service Employees International Union, Cancer Support Foundation, and others.
Larry Zarzecki, a former Maryland police officer who is the founder and CEO of Movement Disorder Education and Exercise Inc., spoke Sept. 18 about his personal struggles.
Zarzecki, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 10 years ago, said since he began needing medication, the monthly prices have “skyrocketed” — some have gone from $5 to over $200, and those that were about $200 are now more than $2,000, he said.
As he laid out six pill bottles on the podium, he said, “I would just like to start off by showing everybody what $3,800 a month looks like to a person with Parkinson’s.”
“That’s after my (out-of-pocket) threshold for medication has been met,” Zarzecki said. “Without these medications, I cannot function. I can’t afford to continue paying $3,800 a month.”
In 2017, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly approved House Bill 631, which gave Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, the power to target generic drug manufacturers that boost prices for essential medications. Following its approval in both chambers, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, allowed the bill to become law without signing it.
The Association for Accessible Medicines, a group based in Washington, D.C., that represents generic and off-patent drug manufacturers and distributors, sued to block the law from going into effect.
After initially losing in district court, the association won in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Frosh will determine in the next few weeks whether he will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a spokeswoman.
“The generic and biosimilar industry supports efforts to lower patients’ prescription drug costs through policies that encourage competition,” said Allen Goldberg, vice president of communications for the association. “Competition is responsible for FDA-approved generic medicines saving Maryland patients and state programs $4.2 billion last year alone.”
DeMarco said the new proposal will build on the previous legislation, as the board could block price gouging for all drugs, not just generic ones.
Jealous’s plan would do the same with a few other caveats. It would also require drug companies to give notice when they intend to increase prices, impose a drug spending cap for Medicaid, and allow re-importation of lower-cost drugs from Canada, according to a press release last week.
“Marylanders desperately need relief from skyrocketing prescription drug and healthcare costs, and not nearly enough is being done to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable,” Jealous said. “Any step to hold the drug companies accountable is going to be met with stiff resistance from well-funded corporate opposition that is hell-bent on preserving their ability to turn huge profits off the backs of seniors and working families.”
On the other hand, according to a pharmaceutical company representative, this plan misses the mark with regard to helping patients with out-of-pocket costs.
Nick McGee, director of public affairs at PhRMA, a trade group representing multiple pharmaceutical companies, said drugmakers want to address prescription affordability at the pharmacy counter and across the system as a whole.
McGee said these regulations could have an adverse effect on the state’s biotech industry as well.
“America’s biopharmaceutical companies are committed to working with lawmakers and stakeholders on real reforms that ensure patients have access to affordable medicines and the information they need to make informed health care decisions, while at the same time preserving our ability to find new and better treatments for disease,” he said.
Support for the 2017 state law regulating generic-drug prices ran across both sides of the aisle, with nearly 100 Democrats and Republicans co-sponsoring the bill. Now, according to the Health Care for All Coalition, more than 75 legislators have already endorsed creation of a Prescription Drug Affordability Board this upcoming session.
Amelia Chassé, communications director for Hogan, said the governor plans on working with DeMarco on legislation this coming year.
“We have a good working relationship with Mr. DeMarco, including closely collaborating on our successful Maryland Model contract,” she said. “The governor shares the view that the cost of prescription drugs is an important issue, and our administration looks forward to working with him to address it as we get closer to the next legislative session.”
The new Maryland Model, which begins in January, sets the rates at which health care providers are paid and incentivizes them to keep people healthy and prevent them from having return visits, DeMarco said.