Opinion

Let’s Put People Ahead Of Big Pharma And Protect 340B

Gil Gutknecht Former Member of Congress

The midterm election results are great news for Republicans and the country. We now have the opportunity to demonstrate how we can govern. Let’s start by putting people first in addressing the skyrocketing cost of prescription medicines. And while we are at it, let’s block the drug industry’s effort to gut an important drug discount program.

At $84,000 per treatment, Sovaldi for hepatitis C has become the poster child for pricing excess. But even ordinary medicines aren’t immune. Commonly used generic drugs have jumped 600 percent, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association. An EpiPen for emergency treatment of allergic reactions has risen 222 percent since 2007, says Bloomberg News. A single dose of the drug Benicar for high blood pressure is up 164 percent.

State Medicaid officials are begging Congress to put on the brakes when it comes to Solvaldi and medicines like it. “Simply put, the federal Medicaid statute is not designed to allow states to respond to this new pricing approach for pharmaceuticals,” the National Association of Medicaid Directors wrote in a recent letter to Capitol Hill. Their suggestion? The government should buy up the supply and exert “downward pricing” pressure.

That may sound extreme, but consider that Sovaldi manufacturer Gilead has been busy cutting deals overseas. They recently announced that they will sell the drug in India and Egypt for $900 for the same course of treatment. That’s not a typo: $84,000 here, $900 there.

Big Pharma has long made sure Americans pay the highest prices in the world by blocking the importation of the same medicines that they sell overseas for a fraction of the cost. It gets worse. The pharmaceutical industry has dispatched its small army of lobbyists to derail a key drug discount program called 340B.

This vital program was created with bi-partisan congressional support and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. It requires drug manufacturers to provide discounted medications to hospitals and community health centers that serve large numbers of poor patients. In turn, these providers supply low-cost and no-cost medications to underserved individuals. They can also use savings from the program to fund diabetes, heart disease and cancer clinics as well as primary care centers in communities across America.

Because it’s funded by drug companies, the 340B program isn’t a government handout. It’s a mechanism that helps hospitals and other healthcare providers better serve needy patients. And because it allows poor patients to get the medicines they need, they’re more likely to recover and avoid returning to the emergency room on the taxpayer’s dime. It also saves money for Medicaid, the state-federal partnership that helps low-income and disabled patients.

That’s good news for fiscal conservatives and small-government advocates alike.

The 340B program allowed Shannon Williams to receive discounted chemo drugs from Monroe County Hospital in Alabama that helped save her life. Kent Greenway in Richmond, VA, gets free clinical care and discounted medications from Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center to keep his diabetes and high blood pressure under control.

It works. For that reason, the 340B program continues to enjoy strong bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill. More than 100 members of Congress from both parties recently reiterated their support, including such solid conservatives as Senator John Thune (R-SD), Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN). I was also in favor of the program during my tenure in Congress. Seldom is there a chance to do such good without burdening taxpayers.

Regardless of our positions on Obamacare, the fact remains that an estimated 30 million Americans will continue to be without health insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. When these Americans can’t pay their medical bills, it raises healthcare costs for the rest of us. The 340B program helps public and nonprofit hospitals offset this gap and stretch healthcare dollars.

As drug companies continue to squeeze our wallets, the 340B program is a winner for public health and for taxpayers. Policy makers in general and conservatives in particular should fight to defend and preserve it.

Gil Gutknecht is a former Republican Congressman from Minnesota. He consults with a number of companies and organizations, including Safety Net Hospitals for Pharmaceutical Access, a non-profit association of providers participating in the 340B program