By Paul Downey
More and more senior citizens are living in poverty, stretched to the limit by medical costs. San Diego’s Serving Seniors, which provides more than 600,000 meals per year to low-income senior citizens, and operates multiple affordable senior housing units, aims to alleviate this pressure—but we can’t lower the drug prices that are driving so many of our clients to our doors in the first place.
You know who can? Congress.
Americans pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs―over 40 percent more than Canadians and often three times more than the residents of many European countries―and patients on Medicare aren’t immune to these skyrocketing costs. That’s why many so many seniors like our client John are often forced to choose between food and their medications.
John is 72 years old and currently homeless due to some unfortunate events in his life. He’s had two knee replacement surgeries, as well as a hip replacement. However, he is still in constant pain, and can’t afford his medication due to soaring drug prices. Even with his Medicare benefits, he can only afford to take half of his prescribed pain medication―he often takes it once a day and skips the next dose.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but it currently is because Medicare doesn’t have the power to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of its beneficiaries. This is due to a hidden provision in the (ironically named) Medicare Modernization Act. Among other things, this legislation places corporate middlemen called pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, in charge of negotiating drug prices through Medicare’s “Part D” plan. PBMs are for-profit companies, and they have to take their cut—often at the expense of low-income seniors.
Here’s where Congress comes in. Members from Texas, Maryland and Vermont have put forward a bill in the House of Representatives that could change all that: the Medicare Negotiation and Competitive Licensing Act. It would put Medicare back in charge of demanding the lowest drug prices for Americans in need.
Medicare has the biggest buying power of any healthcare coverage provider; so it doesn’t make sense that they can’t negotiate drug prices directly for citizens on fixed budgets who have spent their working lives contributing to social security and Medicare.
Serving Seniors supports this bill because of people like John. No person should have to choose between basic necessities like food and medicine. Our government needs to act on seniors’ behalf. Although some might say that free market competition encourages drug companies to provide low prices, in reality the pharmaceutical industry is protected by complex patent laws, and drugmakers often successfully block out competition from low-cost generic alternatives. Drug companies can lock in some of the highest profits of any industry, all at the expense of consumers, especially seniors.
The Medicare Negotiation and Competitive Licensing Act is a win-win for both senior citizens and the government. It gives Medicare the power to negotiate reasonable prescription drug prices on behalf of millions of Americans, lowering tax dollars to pay for care, and lowering co-pays for older, vulnerable Americans on fixed incomes.
Our request to you: find out who represents you in Congress, and contact their office. Tell them to support the Medicare Negotiation and Competitive Licensing Act.
For more than two decades, Paul Downey has been a national advocate for low-income seniors. He is president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated for nearly 50 years to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty.
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