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Vermont Congressman Holds Roundtable On Prescription Prices

Prescription drug price panel
Pat Bradley/WAMC
From left: Cory Gustafson, Dept of VT Health Access; Community Health Centers of Burlington CMO Dr. Peter Gunther; CHCB Acting CEO Alison Calderara; Kimberly McSweeny; Congressman Peter Welch; Cindy Chornyak; Kelly Stoddard Poor AARP; Brian Murphy BCBS

Vermont Congressman Peter Welch held a roundtable in Burlington Monday with health officials and advocates to discuss the rapidly rising cost of prescription drugs.
Controlling the escalating price of prescription drugs has been a focus of Vermont Congressman Peter Welch during his tenure in the House.  On Monday he outlined a four-point affordability agenda for this session that includes requiring the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices in the Medicare program; closing the so-called orphan drug loophole; increasing access to and making generic drugs more affordable; and requiring comparisons between prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Welch, a Democrat, admits that he has been unable to pass previously introduced legislation, but says the escalating pharmaceutical costs must be restrained.  “The challenge here is this: pharmaceutical drugs are terrific. They extend life. They relieve pain. But the price is killing us. It's getting out of control and there's a number of reasons why that's the case. It's a broken market. It's not transparent. There is monopoly situations on some occasions. And it won't solve itself. So there's got to be some legislation that protects the consumer.”

Kimberly McSweeny was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001 and prescribed an injectable that cost an out-of-pocket payment of $20 a month. After 10 years she was paying $150 a month.  Switching to a different medication cost $400 monthly.  She told the Congressman her latest prescription is even more costly.  “The one I'm taking now is a once-a-month injection and it costs $16,000 dollars a month. That's not what I pay. But that's what it costs. I pay my deductible and my out-of-pocket expenses for my insurance which turns out to be $13,000 dollars a year so it's about $1,000 a month.”

Cindy Chornyak says she has excellent insurance as a Vermont state employee.  But she has allergy problems, and prescription costs for her rheumatoid arthritis last year were over $64,000.  Her insurance covered the vast majority of it but she says the cost increases are unsustainable.  “We have to figure out a solution to this because the pharmaceutical companies are the ones making huge profits on this. They're the ones controlling the prices. I just don't think it's right for companies to make huge profits off of people who are ill and who need these medications.”

AARP Vermont Associate State Director for Outreach Kelly Stoddard Poor noted that while pharmaceutical drugs are helping people live longer and ease chronic conditions, price increases over the past 10 years have been debilitating for seniors on fixed incomes.  “Ninety percent of the brand name drugs have more than doubled in the last 10 years. This is completely unaffordable when the cost of the pharmaceutical drugs is exceeding that of an annual income.”

Congressman Welch co-chairs the House Affordable Medicine Caucus and the Prescription Drug Task Force of the House Democratic Caucus.

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