How Maine is battling exorbitant drug prices

As a lifelong resident of Houlton, I know the back roads like the back of my hand. I know people in my community. I’ve heard people’s stories about the ridiculously high prescription drug costs that most of us face. People shouldn’t have to choose between filling their prescription and paying rent or affording childcare. Unfortunately, for some people, this is a real choice they have to make.

Prescription drug costs in the U.S. and in Maine are simply out of control and have been for years. Instead of waiting on Washington to do something about it, here at the Statehouse we decided to take the matter into our own hands. Several of my colleagues have been working tirelessly on legislation to make sure that Mainers are no longer being gouged by drug companies. Their bill package works to solve this problem from a variety of approaches and is supported by many from both sides of the political aisle.

The first step in this problem is to make sure Mainers pay the lowest price for prescription drugs as possible. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, has developed an innovative way to make sure that Mainers get low-cost prescription drugs, by importing certain drugs on wholesale from Canada. While Canada has the same high quality of drugs that we have access to in the U.S., their pharmaceutical industry is regulated differently, which limits pharmaceutical companies from charging such high prices for the medicine we rely on every day.

The way I see it is, if the same quality drugs are available in Canada for a much lower price, why shouldn’t Mainers have access to that? According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, the average price of drugs in Canada is 30 percent less than those sold in the U.S. This is case even when Canada’s oversight of the pharmaceutical industry meets the same high standards of the U.S. Because pharmaceutical industries are regulated on a state-by-state basis here, we would be able to develop a special relationship with Canada so Mainers can pay the same prices Canadians pay for their medicine and save significant amounts of money.

The second part of this issue deals with the source of why Mainers have such high drug prices in the U.S. Sen. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, is spearheading a bill to mandate that the price-setters of pharmaceutical drugs have to be more straightforward about why they charge us what they do. Her bill zeroes in on pharmacy benefits managers (PBMs), who work with pharmaceutical companies to set the prices that we pay for our medicine.

One of the reasons why prescription drug prices are so high in the U.S. is that certain drug companies and PBMs have huge shares of the market. This means that they are able to profit as much as possible on how they price the drugs — from companies selling drugs to PBMs, and then PBMs selling those drugs to consumers, like you and me. We think Mainers deserve to know why certain drugs cost so much. This bill would also make sure any savings PBMs receive from drug companies are passed on to consumers. With this added level of transparency, we believe that PBMs will choose prices that more fairly reflect the cost of drugs and result in savings for Mainers.

We are dealing with a problem that affects Mainers every day. In some ways, we are trying to change the healthcare system as we know it by providing more fairly priced prescription drugs.

Working on this legislation will be an uphill battle these next few months, but thankfully one step of this plan is already in place. In 2018, the legislature passed a bill by Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, that took stock of the drugs that cost the most in Maine and drugs that saw the biggest spike in price.

Sen. Vitelli is following up on the success of that law with a bill that would require drug companies to share data about the cost of drug production from start to finish. This means that they have to be transparent on what research and development costs go into creating the drug, and how much is spent on marketing. Again, this bill would act as a check on the power of drug companies. Sen. Vitelli’s bill stands up for consumers by requiring transparency, so no one has to pay an exorbitantly high price for a drug if they don’t have to.

I’d recommend keeping an eye out for these bills coming up in committee in the legislature, and I can update you all about them in my biweekly newsletter. To subscribe, go to mainesenate.org.   

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