Hand on the doorknob, I braced myself before entering my patient’s room. After a six-week hospitalization for COVID pneumonia that included a complicated intensive care unit stay, he was eager to return home to his wife and two young children. I had bad news for him. He would need months of treatment for fungal pneumonia, a complication of his COVID infection. In addition to nearly losing his life, he lost his livelihood. He was let go from his job as a food service worker due to his prolonged hospitalization. Without insurance, the treatment would cost him tens of thousands of dollars. I grappled with the words to explain that he would need to remain in the hospital while we worked to establish emergency coverage for his medication.
As a hospital medicine doctor in Colorado, I see these scenarios all too often. I spent the better part of a decade in my medical training learning about all the different treatment options available to ease suffering and prevent, manage, and cure disease. However, as a practicing physician I find that too many of these options are completely inaccessible to my patients due to their price. Much of my day is spent not at the bedside, but in front of the computer and on the phone with care managers and social workers, agonizing over how to get my patients access to life-saving medications that will keep them out of the hospital.
My patients in Colorado and all Americans deserve access to affordable medications. Some states have implemented Prescription Drug Affordability Boards (PDABs) to identify drugs that are priced out of reach. During this year’s legislative session in Colorado, our state Senate introduced SB 21-175, which establishes a Prescription Drug Affordability Board and sets upper payment limits to protect patients from steep costs. The legislation would establish a nonpartisan review board to set a cost threshold for the most exorbitantly-priced prescription drugs – which would bring much-needed relief to health plans, pharmacists, and most importantly, patients. Under this legislation, the PDAB would review drug prices if they are found to be unaffordable for residents of our state or if they undergo a significant price hike. This bill would serve as a safeguard against unreasonable prescription drug costs that patients need to live a healthy life.
Across the country, several other states have also introduced legislation this year to establish Prescription Drug Affordability Boards in their own states, as Americans continue to struggle with prescription costs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies have fought hard against these bills, lobbying state legislatures, creating websites, and running ads opposing this legislation. The pharmaceutical industry claims that enacting measures to make medicines more affordable will compromise innovation of novel medical treatments. However, this is simply untrue. Between 2010 and 2019, taxpayers across the country helped fund the research and development of all 356 prescription drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration. However, while patients continued to struggle with affordability of prescription drugs, pharmaceutical industry R&D budgets barely budged. Even in the past year, as the pandemic brought new challenges and magnified existing financial hardships, manufacturers raised the prices of over 750 drugs — all above inflation.
Curbing exorbitant drug prices is crucial to reducing the cost of medical care. Many life transforming and life-saving medications are out of reach for Americans across the country, and we need legislation like Colorado’s SB 21-175 to ensure that our patients have access to them. As physicians, we can use our voices to advocate for this sort of legislation to help our patients. I was proud to do so with Doctors for America’s Colorado Chapter and encourage my colleagues nationwide to support similar legislation in their states.