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HCFA ED Amy Whitcomb Slemmer in Globe: It’s about time we lifted veil on drug costs.

Expensive prescription drugs

HCFA ED Amy Whitcomb Slemmer in Globe: It’s about time we lifted veil on drug costs.

June 1, 2015

We need to do more to control prescription drug prices, says HCFA Executive Director Amy Whitcomb Slemmer in a letter published in today's Boston Globe:

What pharmaceutical companies pay their executives is generally their business. But the bonuses reported lately are so mind-boggling that it’s impossible to believe that the rest of us aren’t shouldering part of the burden through our skyrocketing deductibles, copays, and other out-of-pocket drug expenses (“Firms say top pay at Vertex is excessive,” Business, May 27).

In Massachusetts, we spend more than $4.5 billion annually on prescription drugs, and as consumer advocates we hear the increasingly common complaint that rising drug costs are jeopardizing patients’ care. So, are we getting a good deal, or are we getting ripped off?

We are excited about a legislative proposal aimed at shedding light on some of the mystery that currently shrouds drug pricing. The bill would require pharmaceutical companies to report their manufacturing, marketing, and research costs, and what they charge for the same medicine overseas.

The bill empowers the Health Policy Commission to determine whether a drug’s price is unreasonable, threatening our cost growth goal, in which case the commission could establish a maximum Massachusetts selling price.

We are determined to create the most effective consumer-centered health care system in the country, which means that prescriptions must be an affordable element of care.

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer
Executive Director, Health Care For All, Boston

The letter is in support of Senator Mark Montigny's bill, S. 1048, An Act to promote transparency and cost control of pharmaceutical drug prices, introduced this session with 16 cosponsors.The bill would start to open a window into the pricing of prescription drugs and finally give the state some tools to control price increases for the most egregious cases.

The bill is grabbing the attention of the industry. Boston law firm Foley Hoag, which represents pharma industry players, alerted clients.to the bill in its newsletter. National insider drug industry tip sheets also took notice, pointing out that the Massachusetts bill is similar to initiatives in other states. We're part of a growing movement.

Opposition to high drug prices continues to grow. Our Globe letter appeared the same day news broke of an unusual speech decrying drug price increases given by a prominent oncologist at a meeting of cancer specialists. While normally these meetings only discuss clinical issues, the drug cost issue was deemed too important to ignore. The Wall Street Journal has the story:

“These drugs cost too much,” Leonard Saltz, chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said in a speech heard by thousands of doctors here for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Dr. Saltz’s remarks focused mainly on an experimental melanoma treatment made by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., but he also criticized pricing more widely. He cited statistics showing that the median monthly price for new cancer drugs in the U.S. had more than doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars from $4,716 in the period from 2000 through 2004 to roughly $9,900 from 2010 through 2014. Dr. Saltz cited studies showing that the price increases haven’t corresponded to increases in the drugs’ effectiveness. ....

It is unprecedented for plenary speeches, which typically address scientific and medical issues, to substantially take on the topic of drug costs, said Alan Venook, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco who planned the meeting’s scientific session and invited Dr. Saltz to speak.

The prominent venue for the speech was also unusual because, like many medical meetings, ASCO is sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and often focuses on highlighting advancements in drug development, said Dr. Venook. He said discussing drug prices there is “uncomfortable” because it could be seen as “biting the hand that feeds you.”

Doctors are also reluctant to antagonize the drug industry because they need pharmaceutical firms to invest in developing new medicines for patients, he said.

We will continue to push aggressively for the state to take firm action to keep prescriptions affordable.

     - Brian Rosman