Submitted to the AFRO by Congressman Elijah Cummings 

On January 29, during the first hearing of 2019 for our House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the image and words of a wonderful Baltimore woman I had come to know at Johns Hopkins Hospital were etched in my heart and mind.

As I would share with my House colleagues that day, I had asked Ms. Mary why she was not more relieved to be leaving the hospital – and she had given me an urgent, real-life message that our nation and government must hear.

“Congressman,” Ms. Mary had told me, “the doctors here have saved my life for now, and I thank God for that – but I can’t afford the cure.”

Tears in her eyes, Ms. Mary was talking to me about the cost of her healthcare – and, specifically, about the far-too-expensive cost of the miracle medicines that could preserve her life.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD.-7) . (Courtesy Photo)

Of all the inhumanities confronting us during these difficult times, there is something especially cruel about a healthcare system that promises a sick woman a cure for her suffering and fear – and then dangles that promise just beyond her reach.

That is why, of all the pressing issues for our Oversight and Reform Committee to address, my first hearing as Chairman examined the actions of drug companies in raising prescription drug prices to excessive, unjustified levels – and the impact of that price gouging on our nation’s families and governmental budgets.

Earlier last month, our Committee launched the current investigation into prescription drug prices to determine why drug companies are increasing prices so dramatically, how drug companies are using the proceeds, and what steps can be taken to reduce prescription drug prices to more affordable levels.

I remain hopeful that the companies that we contacted will provide the information that we have requested without our resorting to the power of congressional subpoena.  However, the companies should take heed that the era of congressional acquiescence and inaction is over – and that we now are proceeding with a sense of urgency.

The drug companies should know that their aggressive price increases in recent years – while gaining record windfall profits at the same time – are no longer sustainable or acceptable.

We are determined to learn and reveal the whole truth about these unaffordable price increases.  Our January 29 hearing is an excellent place for the American people to become better informed.

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This much, however, is already clear.

When the companies’ highly paid lobbyists attempt to justify their price gouging by citing the cost of their research – while resisting disclosure of their actual research expenditures on the theory that the information is proprietary – they should know that this Congress is no longer buying their charade.

As my colleague, Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont observed at our first hearing of 2019, the available information leads us to conclude that the drug companies spend more money on advertising, stock buy-backs or mergers and acquisitions than they do on research.

Even more devastating to the companies’ justification of excessively high prices is the expert testimony that much, if not most, of the research leading to advances in prescription medicines is being done, at public expense, by the federal government and our colleges and universities – and not by the drug companies themselves.

The drug companies should recognize that the testimony at our hearing raised critical questions that they, their lobbyists and allies have yet to answer in any convincing fashion.

Why, for example, are the American people paying more for the same prescription drugs than are the citizens of any other advanced society?

Why is the cost to our country for Medicare Part D prescription drugs so much higher (perhaps 31 percent higher) than the cost of those same drugs purchased through the Veterans Administration?

When fourteen drug companies each made more than $1 billion in profit during the third quarter of 2018 alone, why did the insulin-dependent daughter of Ms. Antoinette Worsham die, simply because she could not afford the $1000 cost for a 3-months’ supply?

Why, as researchers at Yale University have reported, are one in four Americans with Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes “using less insulin than prescribed.”

And why, in the most affluent country on earth, must Ms. Mary, my Johns Hopkins friend, be afraid for her life?

We recognize that research and development efforts on groundbreaking medications have made immeasurable contributions to our health.

Moreover, the prescription drug companies (Big PHARMA as they collectively are known) can rest assured that we are committed to finding (and disclosing) the answers that we are seeking in a process that is both reasonable and fair.

Nevertheless, the American people and their government deserve honest answers to the compelling questions that have been raised about the cost of their medicines – and they deserve those answers now.

The ongoing price escalation by drug companies is an unacceptable danger to both our economy and our lives – and meaningful reform can no longer be delayed or denied.

For millions of Americans, access to medicines that they can afford is a matter of death or life.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.

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Congressman Elijah Cummings

Special to the AFRO