By Congressman Elijah Cummings

Last September, I shared with readers of the AFRO American how a wonderful neighbor whom I had met at The Johns Hopkins Hospital had given me a real-life message that our government – and all of us – must hear.  The lady (whom I will call “Mrs. Johnson” out of respect for her privacy) had confided in me, tears in her eyes, that although the doctors at Johns Hopkins had saved her life, “she could not afford the cure.”

Of all the inhumanities confronting us during these troubled and contentious times, there is something especially cruel about a healthcare system that promises a sick woman an end to her suffering – and, then, dangles that promise just beyond her reach.

Mrs. Johnson was talking about the skyrocketing and unaffordable cost of the miracle medicines that could preserve her life.  It would be exceptionally difficult for any humane person not to empathize with her plight.

Mrs. Johnson, moreover, is not alone.  Paying for the medicines that we need is a burden that far too many Americans share.  In 2014, for example, the Commonwealth Fund reported that nearly 20 percent of us were unable to fill our prescriptions because we could not afford the cost.

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

Even for those of us who are fortunate to have prescription drug coverage, the spiraling price increases for many of our medicines is problematic.  The analysts at cite U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the cost of prescription drugs accounted for more than one-sixth of all personal health expenditures in 2018.

Our Continuing Fight to Hold Big Pharma Accountable

Controlling these spiraling prescription drug costs presents a critically important challenge to our ongoing efforts to expand access to healthcare at a cost that we – and our nation – can afford.

Last year, I asked our Democratic staff experts on the House Oversight and Reform Committee to investigate price gouging by the prescription drug industry. Our May 11, 2018 report to the American people, Skyrocketing Drug Prices: Year One of the Trump Administration, was a call to action.

The data we examined indicated that 16 of the top 20 best-selling drugs in the United States increased significantly in price in the first year of the Trump Administration, mostly by double digits – and 12 of the top 20 most expensive drugs for Medicare Part D increased in price during that period.

Although alarming, the results of our analysis were hardly surprising. Over the past decade, the prices of 90 percent of brand name drugs have doubled.

This is why, as Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform during the new 116th Congress, I redoubled our investigation of the pharmaceutical industry.

The first congressional hearing that our committee called in January revealed a pattern of pricing behavior by Big Pharma that appears contrary to the national interest.  The evidence suggests that, for years, drug companies have been aggressively increasing prices on existing drugs and setting higher launch prices for new drugs – while also recording windfall profits.

For example, approximately 94 percent of widely-used brand-name drugs on the market between 2005 and 2017 more than doubled in price during that time period.  The average price increase in 2017 was 8.4 percent (four times the rate of inflation) according to an analysis conducted by AARP.

In the past, our Committee has also examined the behavior of the generic, off-patent drug manufacturers whose medicines are supposed to significantly reduce the cost of our prescriptions – and our efforts have been joined by state attorneys general like Maryland’s Brian Frosh.

On May 12, Attorney General Frosh announced that Maryland will join more than 40 other states in litigation against the nation’s largest generic drug manufacturers.  The litigation asserts that the defendants have been violating the law by conspiring to artificially inflate and manipulate prices for more than 100 different generic drugs, including treatments for diabetes, cancer, arthritis and other major medical conditions.

Important Steps toward Affording the Cure

The alarming and unsustainable price increases for life-preserving medicines demand action by our government at all levels, a fact recognized by Democrats and Republicans alike.  Where we differ is in the extent of governmental involvement that we believe will be required so that all Americans – and our healthcare financing system – can “afford the cure.”

I have become convinced that there are two important first steps that our federal government could and should immediately undertake toward this goal: (1.) allowing drug importation from Canada and (2.) empowering Medicare to negotiate more affordable prices.

First, since Americans pay significantly more for our prescription drugs than do our neighbors in Canada, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and I have re-introduced proposed legislation in this Congress that would allow the importation of safe, lower-cost prescription medication from licensed Canadian pharmacies .

Second, under current law, the Secretary of HHS is prohibited from negotiating lower drug prices on behalf of Medicare Part D beneficiaries.  As a result, Medicare Part D pays, on average, 73 percent more than does Medicaid for the same brand name drugs and 80 percent more than does our VA.

Government healthcare programs, especially Medicare, pay for approximately 40 percent of retail prescription drug expenditures.  Because of that market power, reducing the cost of Medicare drug purchases (saving taxpayers $15-16 billion each year) could also moderate the cost of medications for all Americans.

This is why Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and I have re-introduced legislation that would require cost-saving negotiations by Medicare .

Americans are suffering – even dying – and Congress and the President must act.  Medical science can save and prolong our lives, but only if we can afford the cure.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.  He is Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

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Congressman Elijah Cummings

Special to the AFRO