Imagine this: You go to the pharmacy to pick up some things you need, like Prilosec for heartburn, a bottle of vitamin D, some iron and B12 pills, Breathe Right nose strips, and, from the pharmacy, sertraline for anxiety. Put together, over the year, your trips to the drug store are costing you between $504 and $720 per year.
That might not seem like a lot. But imagine if, like an estimated 119,000 Mainers, you have diabetes. In 2019, just a vial of insulin in the U.S. cost $332, and in 2017, a 26-year-old Minnesota man died because he couldn’t afford to pay the $1,300 his monthly supply of insulin would have cost.
This is an extreme example. But it’s just one that shows how the ridiculously high price of prescriptions in the United States presents a clear and present danger to millions of Americans who need medicines but can’t afford them because drug corporations have been allowed to hike prices at will. Drug corporations’ monopoly power to set and raise prices (which they do at a rate that’s much faster than the rate of inflation) leaves Americans with no choice but to pay two to four times more for medicines than people in other countries. We’re paying for drug corporations to be, by far, the most profitable industry sector in the U.S.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Because I have a disability stemming from my time in the military, my drug costs — including those vitamins and Breathe Right strips as well as the sertraline — are 100% covered by the Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA). They cost me nothing, and most veterans who get VHA services pay much less for prescriptions than they would with private insurance or Medicare.
Compared to private health insurers and Medicare, the VHA, Department of Defense and Medicaid pay about half as much for prescription medications. A huge part of why this can happen is because they are able to negotiate lower prices directly with drug makers. For Medicare, those kinds of negotiations are prohibited.
So why not allow Medicare to negotiate with drugmakers? President Biden has supported the idea — and former President Trump promised to make drug corporations “negotiate like crazy” in his 2016 campaign before ditching that promise in 2019. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs model shows how policies like negotiating drug prices can make medicines much more affordable, for everyone.
I have post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from my time in the Navy, along with tinnitus, which makes it hard for me to hear. And I’m not alone. Veterans experience mental illness, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury at higher rates compared to the rest of the population, and post-9/11 veterans have very high rates of suicide.
And while about 9 million of us get services through the VHA, many more have private insurance, enroll in Medicare as they age or depend on Medicaid. Around 6% of veterans have no coverage, including an estimated 7,055 in Maine.
Drug price reforms that would enable Medicare to negotiate lower prices and then extend those prices to everyone, like the Lower Drug Costs Now Act in the House, are common sense measures that would benefit everyone, including veterans. The proposal would also hold drug corporations accountable for jacking up prices higher than the rate of inflation and put caps on out-of-pocket costs. That’s important for many veterans coming home — a third of whom struggle to pay bills and access health care because of affordability. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have an excuse for inaction given that a majority of voters in both parties support negotiations.
Veterans have fought for and preserved American independence for generations. Now we are counting on Congress to protect our health by freeing us from pharmaceutical price-gouging that puts our lives at risk. It’s time for lawmakers to lower drug prices.
Alicia Barnes is a Navy veteran who deployed to Iraq and resides In Oakland