Every year, I hold a town hall in every Oregon county. From coast to grasslands, gorge to high desert, blue to red, there is one consistent issue that Oregonians ask me to address: the price of prescription drugs.
Albert, in Linn County, pays $800 per dose for his wife's immunosuppressant medication. I don't know too many Oregonians who can sustain that and Albert's worried that soon the family won't be able to afford for her to continue taking that medication.
It's the same story all over. T.J., from Klamath Falls, needs medication to manage his rheumatoid arthritis condition, and it costs almost $5,500 per dose. If that sounds ridiculous, it is. In Canada, the same drug costs $1,800 per dose.
These aren't isolated examples. It's common for drugs to be two to 10 times more expensive here than in other developed countries.
I recently held an AARP tele-town hall and more than 1,650 seniors living across the state called in about their concern over the rising costs of drugs. From digging into savings to pay for medications to not taking full doses of medication to make it stretch further, seniors in Oregon are suffering real consequences because of the exorbitant cost of drugs.
It's not just Oregonians who are suffering. Nearly a quarter of Americans who take prescription medications say they or a family member has not filled a prescription, has cut pills in half, or has skipped doses simply because of the cost. Of the six in 10 Americans who report taking at least one prescription medicine, 80 percent say the cost of their prescription drugs is unreasonable.
When it comes down to it, the only people in this country who think drug prices aren't way too high are those getting rich from drug company profits.
At one point, I thought drug prices would be the one issue President Trump and I could agree on; he came into office promising to lower drug prices. But there has been no action to match the rhetoric. In fact, the president's revised North American Free Trade Agreement (commonly known as NAFTA) actually locks in high drug prices in the United States.
At the behest of drug companies, it locks in special monopolies, allowing them to set high prices on vaccines, treatments for cancer and heart disease, and more.
Last year, after the president announced his prescription drug blueprint, pharmaceutical companies' stock prices actually went up. If a plan is good for the companies selling prescription drugs, I am certain it is not good for us as consumers.
I have a few ideas that drug companies wouldn't like at all, but would really help our pocketbooks: outlawing drug companies' price-gouging of American consumers and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
Americans spend on average $1,200 on prescription drugs every year — more than patients in any other country. This is largely because pharmaceutical companies play Americans for suckers: They get American taxpayer-funded research behind many of their breakthrough drugs, then turn around and charge us far more than people in other countries.
My End Price-Gouging for Medications Act would stop that practice. The bipartisan, bicameral bill would stop drug companies from charging Americans more for prescription drugs than the median price per drug in 11 developed nations. This established reference price would apply to all patients in the U.S. market — those who are uninsured, have purchased their own coverage, or who are covered under a group health plan, like their policy from an employer or Medicare. If drug companies try to evade the law, they'll be subject to fines five times the price difference.
In addition to stopping the price gouging by drug companies, we should be using other means to bring down drug prices, but currently the best tool we have is locked away. I've written legislation that would unlock the toolbox and let Medicare negotiate the price of the drugs it buys.
Medicare is by far the biggest insurer in the nation, yet the drug companies have persuaded policymakers in Washington to prevent Medicare from negotiating drug prices. If our government is working for "We the People" instead of the special interests like drug companies, this change should be a no-brainer.
We have allowed Americans to be ripped off by drug companies for far too long. I am taking a multi-pronged approach to stand up to Big Pharma, and stand beside the Americans who are being forced to choose between life-saving medicines and basic necessities.
My hope is that every Oregonian who's attended my town halls, every senior who called in to my tele-town hall and every American who relies on affordable health care and prescriptions will join in the cry to put a stop to pharmaceutical companies' greed and provide Americans with much-needed relief.
Jeff Merkley is Oregon's junior U.S. senator
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