General Assembly Democrats take on prescription drug prices

General Assembly Democrats take on prescription drug prices

By Pat Poblete (March 8, 2021)

Democratic state lawmakers on Monday took aim at prescription drug prices, introducing a measure that would create a board to review the prices of high-cost medications while also passing a bill expanding a drug importation program out of a Senate committee on a party-line vote. 

The latter bill from Sens. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and Don Coram, R-Montrose, seeks to expand on a program signed into law in 2019 that would allow Coloradans to import prescription drugs from Canada. The state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing estimates that would give consumers access to medications that would be on average 61% cheaper than in the United States. But that program has yet to be fully implemented in the state with a holdup based largely at the federal level. 

Congress in 2003 approved a proposal allowing certain drugs to be imported from Canada if the secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services deemed it could be done safely. Heads of that agency, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, opted against taking that measure but former Secretary Alex Azar, who ran HHS under President Donald Trump, approved a rule on the program in September. President Joe Biden expressed support for the concept on the campaign trail, and his nominee to lead HHS, Xavier Becerra, voted for the Canadian drug importation proposal as a member of Congress in 2003. 

Ginal told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee the bill expanding the program would allow the state to be among the first to reach foreign drug markets should federal law ever allow it. 

The bill faced opposition from a pair of organizations: The Partnership for Safe Medicines, a nonprofit that Kaiser Health News reported has deep ties to the pharmaceutical industry, and the Colorado Pharmacists Society. Both groups raised concerns about the safety of imported drugs. 

But HCPF executive director Kim Bimestefer countered that 80% of active pharmaceutical ingredient manufacturers and 60% of completed drugs already come from outside the country. She said the factories and drugs have already been approved by the FDA, adding “what we’re actually importing is the prices.” 

Coram, meanwhile, closed the hearing by emphasizing that the drugs imported under the program would largely be the same as those already in pharmacies. 

“I find it ironic that some may think that because the drug is manufactured in France and you buy your prescription at your local pharmacy supermarket chain, you pay this price, it’s OK, it’s safe,” he said. 

Still, that didn’t win over any of the panel’s Republicans. Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, said she had concerns over the transparency of the bill’s fiscal note, which would see HCPF draw funds from those allocated in the original Canadian expansion if the federal government enacted a law allowing a drug importation expansion. 

Republican Sens. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa and Jim Smallwood of Parker also voted against the bill as Democrats advanced it to the full Senate. 

Gov. Jared Polis earlier in the day said that bill “is going to be part of the solution” for bringing down prescription drug costs. But he touted another piece of legislation introduced on Monday seeking to create a board to review the cost of the highest-priced prescription drugs as a “better and longer-term solution.” 

That bill, from Sens. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Longmont, and Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, would see a board appointed by the governor research, review and establish payment limits for drugs deemed unaffordable. 

While in the House, Jaquez Lewis sponsored the original Canadian drug importation bill. But she said that measure had drawbacks, including its narrow scope that doesn’t include specialty drugs or biologics. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Yadira Caraveo said she knew from experience “we are well past time needing to bring prescription costs down.” The Thornton Democrat and pediatrician is sponsoring the bill in the House along with Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood. 

“It really is shameful that I have to have conversations in clinic about whether families can afford to pay for prescription medication or put food on the table for their children,” she said.

The measure will likely face opposition from Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, last month said while some might appreciate the price controls in the short term, he believed it would have long-term effects on the pharmaceutical industry’s capacity for research and development. 

“If there is a board for Colorado that is controlling prices, I don’t think it would be a surprise if a drug isn’t available in Colorado,” he said at a panel hosted by Colorado Politics before the bill was introduced. “I don’t think over time, it’ll be surprising that people would be leaving Colorado and going to a state where they could access a particular pharmaceutical that they need.” 

Read more on ColoradoPolitics.com.

Legislature to consider special panel to limit drug costs

By Charles Ashby (March 9, 2021)

Colorado could join a handful of other states that no longer are waiting for the federal government in finding ways to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

Because congressional efforts to negotiate for lower prices on prescription drugs continue to falter, several states have or are considering creating their own Prescription Drug Affordability Boards.

Like many of those other states’ boards, Colorado’s panel would gather a group of experts to investigate drug cost increases, and then set guardrails on prices for the most expensive drugs.

Many of the drugs sold in the United States cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars more than the same drugs go for in Canada and the European Union. That’s partly because those nations do what this one doesn’t, negotiate with drug companies, and put limits on what they can charge, sponsors of the bill say.

“It’s just ridiculous what’s going on with this,” said Gov. Jared Polis in announcing introduction of the bill into the Colorado Legislature on Monday. “These are the exact same prescription drugs, and yet they cost far more. American consumers are sick and tired of being ripped off.”

Polis said some Americans, those who are served by the Veteran’s Affairs for example, pay those cheaper costs. Why? Because they negotiate drug costs, the governor said.

The four Democratic sponsors of the bill — Sens. Julie Gonzales of Denver and Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Lafayette, and Reps. Yadria Caraveo of Thornton and Chris Kennedy of Lakewood — all said that Coloradans, particularly lower income residents, are having to choose from paying their rents and putting food on their tables and paying the high cost of life-saving medications.

“There is no reason why we should be paying more for prescription drugs than consumers in other countries, but we are and it’s not even close,” said Caraveo, a medical doctor. “Physicians like myself make decisions all the time about what is in the best interests for our patients. Drugs only work if my patients can take them. Prescription drugs save lives.”

Four states already have such panels in place, but only within the past year, so it’s not yet known how effective they will be. A dozen other states also are considering similar bills in their legislatures.

Read more on GJSentinel.com.

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