U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal at a press conference on Monday in Hartford. Alyssa Hurlbut / CTMirror.org

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called on his federal colleagues and President Donald Trump to do more now to control the costs of skyrocketing prescription drug costs.

“There is no way that America can stand idle and allow these prescription drug costs to continue increasing at the present rate,” said Blumenthal at a press conference on Monday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. “We will bankrupt our health care system and literally millions of Americans.”

Blumenthal, a Democrat, has co-sponsored several pieces of proposed legislation, including bills that would allow drug imports from Canada; grant rebates to low-income Medicare recipients; grant Medicare new powers to negotiate lower prices; and end “gag clauses” that prevent pharmacists from telling patients about the most affordable options for their prescriptions. Connecticut passed a law banning these gag clauses in 2017.

Trump unveiled a “blueprint” in May, which the president said would make medications more affordable by lowering out-of-pocket costs, as well as having better negotiation and incentives for lower lists prices.

Democrats like Blumenthal say Trump’s plan does not go far enough, however, especially since it does not include allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

The White House has claimed some victories, though. Pfizer rolled back a plan to raise the price of more than 100 popular drugs this year; and Roche announced it would not raise prices any more this year, after hiking them twice earlier in the year. Merck & Co. also said it would cut prices for a handful of its products.

“I am hopeful that we have reached a moment of opportunity,” Blumenthal said Monday. “It’s a moment of bipartisan opportunity. It’s a moment of potential collaboration with a president who has said prescription drug prices need to be brought under control.”

Blumenthal’s legislation has an uphill climb in a GOP-controlled Congress. But some Republicans – and Trump – back some of the senator’s ideas, including drug importation from Canada and more transparency in pharmaceutical prices. Both Democrats and Republicans are using the escalation of prescription drug prices as a campaign issue in the mid-terms because it resonates among voters, especially older voters.

In May, the Connecticut Legislature unanimously passed legislation, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, that requires industry players to disclose a wide range of information to the state. Those affected players include drug companies, health insurers, and lesser-known entities called pharmacy benefit managers, known as PBMs, which manage drug benefits for insurers.

Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who was one of the key supporters of the state’s legislation, also spoke on Monday, calling for federal action.

Comptroller Kevin Lembo. ctmirror.org

“Most of us would like to believe that patients get what they need, that they can afford to get it and we know that unfortunately not to be true,” Lembo said. “We also, I think, generally are unclear about the wealth exchange that happens between the guy that makes the pill and the person who takes the pill at their kitchen counter every morning. That pill wanders its way through a system where money changes hands multiple times, and when that happens, people are making money, but it adds to the overall cost on top of big costs that already exist.”

Linda Gilley, a Somers resident appearing with Blumenthal, said her two medications cost $15 per month when she started taking them many years ago. Now they are almost $600.

“I absolutely feel that the pharmaceutical industry is taking advantage of people who need their medications to stay alive,” said Gilley, 64. “We have two choices. We can either pay the high prices or we can die.”

Consumers, like Gilley, are “really stuck in the middle on this issue,” said Vicki Veltri, executive director of the new Office of Health Strategy. “We have to take action to get consumers out of the middle.”

“Health care costs in Connecticut and elsewhere are becoming more and more burdensome,” Veltri said.

Health care will soon reach 20 percent of the gross domestic product and Connecticut’s health care costs are the sixth highest in the nation, she said.

Blumenthal commended Connecticut officials for being “at the forefront of action,” but said, at the end of the press conference, the federal government “has to bear the burden of making this system more transparent, stopping price gouging, eliminating and cracking down on profiteering.”

“Now is your chance, Mr. President, now is your opportunity to show that you really care and you’re committed to do something,” he said.

The Connecticut Mirror’s Washington reporter Ana Radelat contributed to this report.

Mackenzie is a former health reporter at CT Mirror. Prior to her time at CT Mirror, she covered health care, social services and immigration for the News-Times in Danbury and has more than a decade of reporting experience. She traveled to Uganda for the News-Times to report an award-winning five-part series about a Connecticut doctor's experience in Africa. A native of upstate New York, she started her journalism career at The Recorder in Greenfield, Mass., and worked at Newsday on Long Island for three years. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she wrote her master's thesis about illegal detentions in Haiti's women's prison.

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