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Here’s a roadmap for lowering drug prices

November 18, 2018

In this age of bitter political division, theres a health care reform that Americans overwhelmingly agree on allowing the federal government to wield its vast purchasing power to drive down medication costs for seniors.

The newly elected Democratic House majority ought to leverage this rare common ground to swiftly pass a Medicare drug price negotiation bill, putting pressure on the Republican-controlled Senate to do the same.

Nearly 60 million Americans get medical coverage through Medicare, which primarily serves those 65 and older. The government-run insurance program pays for vast amounts of medication, accounting for nearly 29 percent of national retail pharmaceutical spending. Yet the 2003 law adding drug coverage to Medicare benefits specifically prevents the government from negotiating with the industry.

This prohibition has endured serious congressional attempts to remove it. Among the reasons: The powerful pharmaceutical lobby would prefer that the government not wield its buying clout. Republicans also have been reluctant to broaden the governments role in Medicare Part D, which relies on private insurers to deliver this benefit.

But Americans feel strongly that the nation should try to get a better deal for seniors and taxpayers. A 2017 poll commissioned by the respected Kaiser Family Foundation showed broad support.

Overall, 92 percent of those surveyed favored allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices. Support never dropped below 90 percent when respondents were asked political affiliation.

Ninety-six percent of Democrats favored Medicare price negotiation. For Republicans and those who are politically independent, that number was 92 percent. Thats as close to unanimous as a political issue ever gets.

That strong support should spur House leadership to move quickly in 2019. Democrats campaigned hard on health care this fall. During fall interviews with the Star Tribune Editorial Board, most of the partys Minnesota candidates for national office specifically mentioned their support for Medicare drug price negotiations.

Now its time to deliver, especially as drug prices threaten to outstrip seniors ability to pay for them. A 2018 report from a Senate committee detailed these alarming increases. It focused on Medicare enrollees 20 most prescribed brand-name prescription medications and tracked prices from 2012 to 2017.

On average, prices for these drugs increased 12 percent every year for the last five years approximately 10 times higher than the average annual rate of inflation. Twelve of these drugs (60 percent) had their prices increased by over 50 percent in the five-year period, the report concluded. Six of the 20 had price increases of over 100 percent. In one case, the average wholesale acquisition cost for a single drug increased by 477 percent over a five-year period.

Its important to point out that its unclear how much could be saved if Medicare directly bargained with drug companies. And its also important to note potential trade-offs, such as establishing a formulary, or list of covered drugs, that excludes some medications. Still, every avenue should be explored to rein in drug costs. Removing the prohibition on Medicare negotiations is a logical place to start and a move that President Donald Trump, who has expressed concern about drug prices, should be inclined to support.

Fortunately, theres legislation already teed up to do so. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, is the lead author of a sensible bill that simply undoes the prohibition and lets Medicare staff figure out the best way to proceed. Klobuchar is also a champion of other bills to help rein in costs, such as by speeding the path of less expensive generic drugs to market.

House leaders should follow Klobuchars lead. Its time to do more than talk about rising drug prices. Its time to do something about them.

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