Sussman: Arizona needs bold action, not just promises to make medicines affordable


Prescription drug costs are unbelievably unaffordable for millions of Americans, including me, a medical student with a long term history of asthma and food allergies living off loans.

Increasing my debt simply to afford another refill of Epi-Pens makes the prescription drug price crisis personal to me.

Drug corporations’ price-gouging puts health at risk and forces financial hardship for me, for the patients I see as part of my clinical training, and potentially, for future patients.

Lawmakers have a moral obligation to take action now to rein in Big Pharma’s power to set and keep prices high. Patients can’t wait for life-saving medicines --- they need affordable medicines now.

Simple band-aid solutions or tweaks will not resolve this issue. With no limit on out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs in Medicare, millions of seniors are struggling with the cost of their medicines, forced to make tough choices between paying for prescriptions or for other basic needs like food, housing and transportation on a limited income.

But it’s not just seniors --- people of all ages, backgrounds and incomes are struggling with the growing affordability crisis. Families with private insurance can’t keep up with premiums as prescription drug prices push them upwards.

Parents can’t afford medicine for their children and adult children can’t do enough to help aging grandparents and relatives.

There are a lot of policy proposals out there, but the ones that will be most impactful are those that directly take away the drug companies’ power to set and keep prices high through patents, monopolies and relentless price-gouging.

Lawmakers must stand up to Big Pharma and put in place fair rules that guarantee every patient, no matter where they live, what they look like, how old they are and what’s in their wallet --- can get affordable medicine when they need it.

House Democrats’ Lower Drug Costs Now bill is a big step in that direction. It would finally force the Big Pharma companies to negotiate prices with government on hundreds of the most popular prescription medicines in Medicare. President Trump has said that he supports negotiations, but has taken no action to make the companies negotiate prices.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already announced that the legislation is “DOA” if it requires the drug corporations to negotiate lower prices.

That’s bad news for the millions of Arizona seniors and families struggling to get affordable medicine. Arizona’s population is aging --- the number of people who are 65 or older has increased by 50% over the last decade.

As people age, they tend to have higher health needs and need more prescription medicines to manage them. More than half of adults 65 and older report taking four or more prescription drugs compared to one-third of adults between ages 50-64 years old and one-tenth of adults between 30 and 49 years old.

Annual spending on prescription drugs now exceeds $450 billion and is rapidly becoming the biggest expenditure in health care, impacting everyone. We all pay for prescription drug price-gouging as more and more tax dollars are needed to fund Medicare and Medicaid and public investment in research and development are handed over to drug companies with little accountability.

As we spend more, drug corporation profits accelerate. Between 2006 and 2015, 67% of drug companies increased their annual profit margins some up to 20 percent --- while patients struggle with double digit increases in price.

These same companies were then rewarded with $25 billion in tax breaks over the next 10 years under President Trump’s 2017 tax law.

As more Americans clamor for lower prices, PhRMA, the drug industry lobby group, have continued to increase their spending to prevent any reforms that could stymie the industry’s inflated profits. Last year alone, PhRMA broke its annual record, spending about $27.5 million to protect drug company profits in addition to the $193.4 million that the individual drug corporations spent on their own.

When I am a physician, I do not want to hear stories from the students that I mentor about needing to increase their loans to afford emergency life-saving medications.

I cannot sit by while patients struggle to negotiate home foreclosures precipitated by autoimmune disorders or cardiac issues.

The growing prescription drug price crisis requires bold action from lawmakers, but it won’t happen unless all of us --- seniors, families and doctors --- stand together to demand it. Changing the system is a moral, financial and public health imperative.

Senator Martha McSally and Representative David Schweikert have an opportunity right now to show constituents which side they are on when it comes to lowering drug prices --- seniors, families and doctors or PhRMA lobbyists?

Constituents deserve better than lip service or empty promises as we watch our family members, neighbors and patients struggle to afford life-saving medicines they need to feel better. It’s time to do the right thing and lower drug prices now.

Editor’s Note: Jon D. Sussman is a Scottsdale resident, a second year medical student, and a chapter president of the American Medical Student Association.