Everyday millions of Americans are faced with an impossible choice: buy medications or pay for food, rent or other necessities. A recent survey indicates the sheer size of this public health crisis — 1 in 4 Americans have had to make this choice at some point in their lives.
Indeed, 25 percent say they have had to choose between filling a needed prescription and paying for essentials, like groceries or housing, because of the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs, according to a recent Zogby poll commissioned by Prescription Justice. That same poll found that nearly 1 in 3 Americans have grappled with other household budgetary issues and not filled a prescription because of cost.
Having 45 million people go without doctor-prescribed medication is just not sustainable from a public health perspective; yet, this is an issue that the United States has been grappling with for decades.
President Donald Trump has said he will address the outrageous price hikes that continue to affect medications for illnesses both common and rare, including in his first address to Congress. Additionally, many in Congress are ready to finally bring some relief to consumers, following a series of unconscionable price hikes of lifesaving medications such as the 500% increase in the cost of the EpiPen and the 680 percent surge in the price of the opioid overdose treatment Evzio, to name a few.
In just the past few weeks, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price urging him to exercise his authority to allow importation under certain circumstances, including for unexplained price increases, and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) released a promising bill to permit importation of prescription drugs from Canada.
Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of swift action. The Zogby poll found that roughly 79 percent of Americans believe prescription drug prices are too high, and nearly 52 percent believe that pharmaceutical companies engage in price gouging and put profits over patients. Additionally, 77 percent of participants who had an opinion support changes to federal law that would allow consumers to import lower-cost medications for personal use.
Up to now, administrations from both parties have failed to use the tools at their disposal to help alleviate this crisis and ensure that more Americans can afford the medications they so desperately need. But the momentum for action is building, and there are a few concrete steps policymakers can and should take immediately.
First, the president should use his executive authority to instruct the HHS Secretary to certify the importation of prescription drugs from other countries under designated circumstances. The department already has this authority under the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act.
Second, the president and Congress should prevent drug companies from charging exorbitant prices for life-saving medications. This should include lifting prohibitions against Medicare using its bargaining power to negotiate lower cost drugs – as the president has indicated he wants to do.
And lawmakers should end “pay to delay” deals that allow brand-name pharmaceutical companies to pay generic drug companies for postponing generic versions of popular treatments. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that taxpayer drug costs were $3.5 billion higher in 2014 because of such deals.
This is a public health crisis which must be addressed. We hope the Trump administration and members of Congress heed the call from the clear majority of Americans who are desperate for commonsense legislative and regulatory reforms that will bring drug prices down.
Jodi Dart is executive director of Prescription Justice, a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to enacting regulatory and legislative reforms and common sense policies to lower drug prices in America and expand access to lower cost medication from pharmacies in other countries.