Amid indications that the high cost of drugs is impairing the health of some state residents, a high-ranking New Jersey lawmaker is sponsoring legislation designed to bring some relief.
At a press conference Monday in Trenton, Sen. Troy Singleton, the chair of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs committee, unveiled two bills — one that would allow the state to buy medications in bulk and another that would establish a commission to explore, among other items, purchasing drugs in other countries where they are much cheaper than in the United States.
The new legislative proposals come at a time when evidence is growing that the soaring price of prescription medications is forcing some to make unhealthy choices.
“Increasingly, the pharmaceuticals are being turned into luxury items beyond the reach of the people who need them,” said Maura Collinsgru of New Jersey Citizen Action, which is advocating for legislative action on the issue.
According to the AARP, another voice in favor of curbing the rise in drug prices, one in four New Jersey residents stopped taking medications as prescribed in 2017. The group also says that the average price of brand-name drugs produced by major pharmaceutical companies increasing 58% in the state between 2012 and 2017.
Choosing between food and medication
LeNor LeDoux of Burlington County is one of those who’s struggled to afford her medications.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous,” she said. “You should not have to choose between food and medication.”
“People cope by cheating themselves,” she said, “cutting tablets in half, you have people just taking medication every other day; you have people out there who are actually doing both.”
The first of the bills proposed by Singleton is designed to leverage the state’s bargaining power as an insurer of some 2.5 million people, including public employees and their families. He said he hoped private insurers would join forces with the state.
“I actually am not trying to tell any company what to price their drug at,” he said. “But what we’re saying is, this is what the state of New Jersey is willing to pay.”
Dr. Jubril Oyeyemi, a doctor who sees patients in Camden, sees how much prescription drug prices can vary, and says he always searches for the cheapest option.
“Ten dollars, all the way to as high as hundreds of dollars, for the same medication and the same active ingredient,” he said. “It just seems like profits are sometimes placed over wellness.”
Singleton’s second bill would create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board to study how Big Pharma sets its prices. Based on a Maryland model, the agency could decide that a particular drug is too expensive, and then set an upper price limit all payers would follow. The board could also explore buying medications cheaper from other countries.
Pushback from drug industry
Such international bargain hunting is generally opposed by United States drug companies who cite worries about product safety.
“We are concerned whenever we are looking at importation because what exactly are the patients accessing, how is the safety of that particular drug protected?” said Debbie Hart, president and CEO of BioNJ. “Also in the handling of it along the way, is it compromised at any point in the process?”
“I’m hopeful that we will be able to see some bandwidth for us to be able to explore this conversation,” Singleton said. “Ultimately it’ll be decided, as so much is, in the courtroom.”
Another industry spokeswoman said she would be happy to join in the conversation, but warned that some of the options being discussed are likely non-starters.
“There’s a right and wrong way to make medicines more affordable, but potentially limiting access to medicines through government price controls will never be the answer,” said Tiffany Haverly of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Meanwhile, LeNor says, people feel they’re disposable.
“Not just older people, but younger people with conditions that require medications are just being cast aside,” she said. “It’s like no one seems to care anymore, especially the pharmaceutical companies.”
Assuming they are approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the bills would likely take years to have any impact on prices.