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Published in Health Care

Sen. Brinks seeks to create state panel to oversee prescription drug price increases

BY Thursday, May 06, 2021 04:45pm

A state lawmaker from Grand Rapids wants to create a state panel that could review large price increases for prescription drugs in Michigan.

State Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, wants to model planned legislation for the Michigan Prescription Drug Affordability Board after a recently enacted initiative in Maryland. Her legislation would add to a package of bills now pending in the state Senate to require pharmaceutical companies to explain certain increases in drug prices, the costs to research, develop and manufacture a drug, and how much it invests in clinical trials. Separate legislation would cap consumers’ out-of-pocket costs for insulin.

State Sen. Winnie Brinks COURTESY PHOTO

“Transparency alone will not reduce the cost of prescription drugs for Michiganders,” Brinks said today during a virtual media briefing. She was accompanied by backers of the Maryland initiative and a representative from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Michigan office.

“Consumers will also need help affording their prescription drugs regardless of the new information about prices, price increases or rebates,” Brinks said. “The idea is basically that if there are price increases that are extreme, those are reviewed and justified so that we can ensure people aren’t experiencing price gouging. If there is a legitimate reason like a shortage of an ingredient or something like that, there’s an opportunity to make the case. But when we see increases in drug prices that are just off of the charts, there should be a way for us to hold those manufacturers of those drugs accountable and ensure that people get the medicine they need at a price that is right.”

That doesn’t mean medicines will be “super cheap or completely affordable for everyone, but we certainly can prevent unnecessary price increases,” Brinks said.

Advocates for the formation of a public board to review increases in drug prices say that it builds on efforts to create greater transparency on costs.

Vicent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, likens state drug affordability boards to public utility commissions that regulate rates for electricity and natural gas. Other states such as Minnesota and Oregon are considering similar legislation, DeMarco said.

Barry Glassman, the Republican executive of Hartford County, Maryland, believes that controlling high drug costs is a nonpartisan issue that both political parties can support.

“I always tell the story that when you go to get your prescription, the pharmacist doesn’t also ask you for a voter ID card. He doesn’t care what you are, he just wants your co-pay,” said Glassman, who supported the Maryland legislation. “It cuts across the political spectrum.”

As Brinks prepares her legislation, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce may weigh in on the idea for a state-level public board on drug prices. Brinks will make a presentation on her legislation in June to the chamber’s Health Care & Human Resources Committee.

“Prescription drug pricing is a complex issue. There are many problems and many potential solutions to lower costs. The Chamber has not had a chance to review this legislation yet, but looks forward to doing so,” Andy Johnston, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs, wrote in an email to MiBiz.

Even with the greater public transparency in how prescription drug prices and increases are set, advocates behind forming a Michigan Prescription Drug Affordability Board say it’s of little help for people who cannot afford rising costs for their medication.

“Drugs don’t work if people can’t afford them,” said Dr. Ijeoma Opara, an attending physician with Wayne State University Physician Group and assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine. “The best medicine is the medicine the patient can take, and the medicine the patient can take is the one that they can afford.”

Brinks’ planned bill also would follow a report earlier this year by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Prescription Drug Task Force offering several policy and legislative recommendations on cost transparency, accessibility, affordability and accountability. The policy recommendations cover issues such as publicly reporting data on drug prices and price controls that include setting caps on prescription copays built into health insurance policies.

The recommendations also suggest prohibiting so-called “gag clauses” by pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) that prevent pharmacies from telling customers about lower-cost alternative medications or generic drugs. Many of the task force’s recommendations were covered in legislation that lawmakers considered in 2020. Some of the bills had legislative hearings, but none ultimately passed.

The task force found that over the past six years, the average prices for drugs to treat diabetes, heart disease, depression and other common conditions have more than doubled and that prices “are set with little transparency but with tremendous consequence.”

Prices for common medications that older adults use increased at 10 times the rate of inflation over five years, and the average price for prescription drugs grew nearly 60 percent from 2012 to 2017, according to the report. Survey data indicated that in 2017, nearly one-third of Michigan adults stopped taking a medication because of the cost.

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