HEALTH

In Mount Holly, a discussion about inaction in Washington amid soaring drug prices

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Clark Boyd, the owner of an independent pharmacy in Florence, knows all too well how the spiraling cost of prescription medicine hurts his customers, especially the elderly.

“It’s really a crime and it’s really serious for the seniors,” he said. “They’re displaced from their retail pharmacy and they totally lose all the contact and the caring, and they don’t take their drugs properly.”

Boyd, whose family has owned Boyd Pharmacy for generations, was among those who came to Samaritan Center in Mount Holly for a roundtable featuring Congressman Andy Kim on stalled attempts to fix the problem in Washington. The conversation focused on federal legislation designed to rein the cost of prescription drugs, including a bill approved by the Democrat-controlled House that faces an at-best uncertain future in the Senate.

“We’ve seen the price of insulin double just over the last five years,” said Kim, a South Jersey Democrat who says 20% of his constituents qualify for Medicare. “These are the types of things — we’re just trying to figure out what’s fair.”

Those at the roundtable noted that list prices rose again recently, an average of 5% for 50 drugs that include some of the most commonly prescribed. That’s more than twice last year’s 2.1% annual inflation rate, so patients ration.

“They’re making decisions on when to take their medications not because of their health care, but because of the costs of the medication,” said Phillip Heath, chairman of the board of trustees at Samaritan Healthcare and Hospice.

Amid the vacuum of inaction in Washington, some of his customer have come to rely on Boyd.

Audrey and Les Dillon get their medications at Boyd’s. In their 80s and on Medicare, they take four prescriptions between them, and Boyd offers them a lifeline they can’t typically get from mail order or chain pharmacies.

“If we didn’t have the money, he would say: ‘Here, take it now and pay me when you can,’” Audrey Dillon said. “He’s very kind to us. Very good.”

Among its provisions, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to negotiate maximum prices for some drugs, including insulin and brand name drugs that lack generic counterparts. Drug manufacturers that fail to comply would be subject to civil and tax penalties.

The measure was approved by the House along partisan lines last month and awaits action in the Republican-controlled Senate. But President Donald Trump criticized the measure in a tweet: “…Do Nothing Democrats drug pricing bill doesn’t do the trick. FEWER cures! FEWER treatments! Time for the Democrats to get serious…”

A White House council claimed that forcing drug makers to accept bargain prices could dampen research and cut the number of new medicines introduced to the marketplace.

“You know, issues like allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is something that President Trump talked about and advocated for, when he was a candidate for president,” said Kim, who has also sponsored a second bill that has yet to be voted on by the full House. “So I think there are ways in which we can engage.”

The pharmaceutical industry says it’s not solely responsible for pricing.

“In fact, there are various points along the supply chain where those costs are added to the system — and that includes everything from the insurance companies, to the pharmacy benefits managers, to hospitals and physicians, et cetera. Literally, there are many players in the mix,” said Debbie Hart, president and CEO of BioNJ.

With impeachment and now the Iran crisis sucking up so much political oxygen, it’s difficult to gauge when Washington might get around to dealing with drug prices.