Every time I hear a constituent struggling to afford next month’s medications, wondering whether they’ll have to choose between paying for a lifesaving prescription and paying rent, the same question — the same frustration — rushes through my mind. In the year 2021, how are we still allowing Big Pharma to have such a stranglehold on our country? How are we still letting the health care industry force the people whose health it’s supposed to care for to count pennies in order to give themselves another day?
Right now, it’s an understatement to say that the American people are being priced out of needed medical treatments. On average, Americans pay two to four times what people in other developed countries pay for certain name-brand prescription drugs, with seniors and families bearing the brunt of those increased prices. Sadly, this has major consequences on our collective health, with one-third of Americans reporting they’ve been forced to skip refilling their prescriptions, and a quarter of insulin users saying they’ve had to ration their medication — a dangerous choice that costs lives. Yet despite these trade-offs, as well as the added toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on people’s well-being, drug companies still chose to hike the prices of hundreds of important prescription drugs just a few months ago.
As a veteran, the prescription medications I need are affordable because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can negotiate with drug manufacturers to bring down prices. But most other Americans, including many who rely on Medicare or private insurance for their prescription medicines, don’t benefit from those negotiations and remain boxed out of accessing the lower prices that are readily available for others.
It’s past time to level the playing field. Every American deserves access to affordable prescription drugs, along with a health care system that actually cares about families’ well-being more than corporations’ profits.
In the Senate, we have an opportunity to make drug pricing reform a reality right now by increasing transparency and granting Medicare the ability to negotiate drug pricing, like VA already does, so that more Americans could afford the medications they need. We could limit what patients would have to pay out-of-pocket and stop drug manufacturers from brazenly charging seniors and families more than they can afford for lifesaving medications, bringing pharma to the table in order to set fair prices.
Passing this kind of policy wouldn’t just be a matter of common decency — it’d be a matter of common sense as well. Lowering drug prices is extremely important to Americans across the political spectrum. No matter who they vote for, folks understand that their prescriptions are just too expensive, and a vast majority of Democrats and Republicans alike want our government to be able to directly negotiate prices with drug manufacturers, which would allow taxpayers to save money that could be better put to use paying the gas bill come the first of the month.
President Biden said it best when he told Congress in April, “Let’s give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices… [T]hat won’t just help people on Medicare. It will lower prescription drug costs for everyone.”
We have both a duty and a mandate to take action now. Americans have the right to know that their elected officials stand on the side of patients and affordable health care, not corporate CEOs and shareholders. They have the right to know that we will not let the status quo stand, as it is simply unsustainable for too many seniors and families.
We can give them that assurance, extra dollars in their pocket and, hopefully, more tomorrows filled with better health by reining in drug pricing, making clear once and for all that we will no longer tolerate an environment in which out-of-pocket drug costs force Americans to choose between their health — or even their lives — and putting food on the table for their families.
Duckworth is the junior senator from Illinois.