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Stopping Rx Greed Across America

Find out how state governments are taking action to lower prescription drug prices

Prescription drug bottles

AARP/Getty Images

Bob Edwards:

When you think ‘drug smugglers,’ you don’t think of patients struggling to afford their treatments. Today we’ll meet Roger Roehl [RAIL], whose Leukemia meds are either Canadian contraband -- or a clever fix.

And we’ll explore how some states are curbing high drug prices, too.

Later in the program, we celebrate the life of NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson.

Hi, I’m Bob Edwards, with an AARP Take on Today.

Last month, New Mexico passed a bill allowing the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. 

Elaine Ryan:

That bill is now pending the signature of the governor and we're hopeful she'll sign it. 

Bob Edwards:

That’s AARP’s Elaine Ryan.

Elaine Ryan:

I’m your vice president of state advocacy and strategy. I work with our 53 state offices to move our advocacy agenda at AARP through those legislature.

Bob Edwards:

She contends the New Mexico importation bill is necessary because the cost of prescription drugs in the US have risen far beyond what’s affordable. 

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that one in four Americans surveyed struggled to pay for their medication in the past year. And about a third did not take medication as prescribed because of the price.

Lawmakers around the country have taken note, and started to write legislation that could save lives.

Along with New Mexico, 26 states passed bills to reduce drug prices in the past year, and dozens of new bills have been introduced around the country in 2020. 

More on that later in the program.

First, let’s hear from someone who found a lifeline in a brochure from a Canadian pharmacy.

Roger Roehl:

As a senior and retired, this is not right to have to think of selling your home, or selling your possessions to pay for medicine, or not take the medicine." It was a real shocker.

Bob Edwards:

When Roger Roehl, a retiree from North Dakota, was diagnosed with leukemia 4 years ago, doctors told him he had only a few months to live. Luckily, Roehl was given a lifeline 

Roger Roehl:

He had this pill, that in the world of Leukemia, this is being called the silver bullet, that it came out a few years ago, and it was taking care of this particular kind of  sleukemia that I had. So he put me on it, and that was the end of the discussion. They said it had to come from a specialty pharmacy in Flint, Michigan. That they would call me and they would fly it out here.

Bob Edwards:

In his first 2 months of treatment, the medication only cost $10 a month. Then it skyrocketed.

Roger Roehl:

I get this call in June and the pharmacist there says, "Mr. Roehl, your copay now for your Gleevec is $2,400 a month," and I said, "It's what?" He says, "$2,400." "You sure you got t hat right?" I said, "I only paid $10 and then I got a bargain for $5, and it went to $2,400?" "Yes." And I said, "Well, I can't take that. I can't afford $2,400 a month," and so I said, "Just don't send it."

Bob Edwards:

He and his wife couldn’t afford the new price tag, so he decided to stop taking the drug, even though it would put his life at risk. Just when all hope seemed lost, he remembered a brochure from a Canadian pharmacy advertising the same drug at a much lower price.

Roger Roehl:

So she dug it out and we started looking through the list of the medicines and well lo and behold, here was this Gleevec, this pill I'm taking, and it was $690 a month. We're going, "Whoa, this is good."

Roehl’s doctor was skeptical at first, but he tested his patient’s blood regularly and the results were excellent.

So, we call him up and talk to them. I had questions to make sure they were legit and all that. So they said, "All you got to do is fax us a prescription from your physician, and we can get it right out to you," and they said... here's the good one, "If you write a check and don't use credit card, we'll give you a $50 discount."

Well, that was better than $2,400, so I started to take it, we got it here and then we ended up with an appointment at our oncologist, and we asked him about it, and he said, "Well, I don't know anything about it."

"I never dealt with that," and he said, "Well, I got some." He said, "Well, we'll check your blood like usual and we'll see what happens here."

So I took it for three months and he'd come in and he said, "Your blood is in remission," and I said, "Well, that is that pill I've been telling you about. I've taken it for three months now," and he says, "Well, it's working."

Bob Edwards:

Now that Roehl’s cancer is in remission, he wants to advocate for others in this situation who aren’t as fortunate. When he heard about AARP’s campaign to Stop Rx Greed, he offered to share his story.

Roger Roehl:

I never had an idea of sharing my story with anybody. Well we went to an art luncheon one day on avoiding senior scams and stuff. So, we were sitting there and listening to that, and then right at the end they said, "We also have another program called Rx Greed". So we sat there, and I said to my wife, "I want to tell him my story." If I can do something just to get it out there, because I think this is an Rx Greed example...

Bob Edwards:

We asked Roehl what it would mean for him personally if Congress would pass federal legislation to bring down prescription prices.


Roger Roehl:
That would be quite emotional, as you can tell.

But we're going to keep pushing it. There is nothing they can’t fix in DC if they just work together and say for the good of the American people, this is what we need to do. We’re the greatest country in the world and we have the highest cost of medicine of anywhere.

Bob Edwards:

Why is this taking so long?

Elaine Ryan:

Well, I think in many ways we've been incredibly successful, really. The pharmaceutical manufacturers have fed a steady diet, I think of campaign contributions to elected officials for a long, long time. I think that the politics were such that people didn't want to attack this issue. But I think the people's voices are actually overwhelming that. With legislators of Democrats and Republicans in the states taking such bold action, I think it's prodding Congress to say, "It's time to do something." We're hopeful, but it will take people to raise their own voices. If they think prescription drug prices are too high, please weigh in, tell your senators, support the Grassley/Wyden Bill, support congressional action. Let's get something done this year.

Bob Edwards:
What is happening here in our nation's capital or perhaps I should ask, what's not happening?

Elaine Ryan:

It’s noteworthy that after, I would say more than a decade, more than two, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would finally grant the Secretary of Health and Human Services negotiation authority to negotiate the prices we pay for prescription drugs under the Medicare part D program.

It's taken that long for some action and that action took place. Now we have the Senate that's trying to craft a bipartisan bill with Senator Grassley and Senator Wyden to try to move the ball forward on prescription drug reform. AARP is working very hard to encourage that piece of legislation, but even more something needs to get done. There are certain things the state government can do, but the reach of secretarial negotiating authority, the ability to cap the level of out of pocket costs that seniors pay for their prescription drugs, really, are in the hands of Congress to be able to do and we're hopeful they will do so.

Bob Edwards:

How are state legislatures and governors taking on the issue of prescription drug policies?

Elaine Ryan:

It's been an unprecedented level of activity. In 2019, there were more than 40 new laws enacted in 26 States to address the soaring prices of prescription drugs. In many of those states is unanimous agreement that action needed to be taken.

Bob Edwards:

So you have to work at the state level and here in Washington.

Elaine Ryan:

That's right. I have colleagues who cover most of the Capitol Hill action, but where all the action is these days is in the state capitals and state legislatures around the country.

Bob Edwards:

Now, several states passed laws in 2019. Have any of them started importing drugs?

Elaine Ryan:

We had three states take action last year and one state the year before. Colorado, Maine are two of them who act...And Florida that passed an importation law. Next steps after that is that the federal government writes some rules about how states can move forward in implementing those laws. Then the States have to write a plan to say which drugs they want to import from Canada or in some instances from other countries.

Bob Edwards:
What's happening in New Mexico?

Elaine Ryan:
Well, this year, New Mexico passed importation of drugs from Canada. That bill is now pending the signature of the governor and we're hopeful she'll sign it. It is, once again, another state taking action to import lower cost drugs from Canada. You're seeing those bills in 18 other states this year. It isn't just a vanity bill, it's states trying to make federal legislation and move the dial on lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

Bob Edwards:
Is New Mexico the model, or should there be another state to a copy?

Elaine Ryan:
Well, we had four other states already enact laws for importation of drugs from Canada. New Mexico is very much modeled after those bills. But each state will choose which drugs they want to import and how to do that, what the mechanism will be in place at the state level to afford people to access those drugs.

Bob Edwards:

Do any recent state actions stand out for you?

 

Elaine Ryan:

Well, I would say last year was a round of first in the nation. Maryland passed an accountability board for prescription drugs, which not only requires drug manufacturers to report why drugs have increased, but then the state of Maryland is going to say an upper limit of what they're willing to pay for those drugs. You have Colorado that passed some first in the nation legislation to cap out of pocket costs for insulin, which is real... We're seeing this year, 19 States follow Colorado's lead in taking the same action. Then California passed the nation's first Pay for Delay legislation that basically makes it illegal for brand new manufacturers to pay generic companies to keep their lower cost drugs off the market. We're seeing some unprecedented level of activity, some new ideas taking hold in states across the country.

Bob Edwards:

There are similarities in these state laws. Otherwise one has to shop, determine where you're going to live.

Elaine Ryan:

Well, I think there's a lot of shopping that goes on. But the one thing's clear is there's pretty bipartisan agreement across the country that something needs to be done. One of the pieces that was enacted last year was in the state of Texas. They pay us the most comprehensive drug transparency legislation and two weeks ago I met with the bill sponsor who said that the end of this quarter, the end of March, Texas is starting to get information about why drug prices are increasing and what they can do to try to get them under control.

Bob Edwards:

Any particular reason why a state would be more proactive in this area? Does it just depend on who's there and working at it or is it something about the state?

Elaine Ryan:

I think that what we've seen is that there's no real pattern. We have a governor in Florida, a Republican governor who's calling for importation at the same time you had governors in Colorado calling for importation. I think in many ways it's the types of vehicles that they think they can move through the legislature. This year we're seeing that there are more than 75 pieces of legislation pending in state legislatures that our AARP state offices are working to advance. Some start with some ideas and then copy those ideas in other states, others are carving their own path.

Bob Edwards:

Are all these states taking action because of the absence of action in Washington or what accounts for all this activity?

Elaine Ryan:

I think that it's really two fold. Maybe this is the convergence of the impact of the rising prices on people and the effect on state budgets and individual budgets. When you have Americans paying not only the highest prices for their drugs in the world, but two times the price of the drugs that are offered across the world, then people start saying, "Why us?"  

Bob Edwards:

Well clearly this indicates it's a popular issue. Politicians like something they can get behind.

Elaine Ryan:

I have never seen a issue area in the last 10 years and I've been doing advocacy for maybe 20, 25 years. I've never seen an issue like this. It's bipartisan and in one half of the state legislature's last year, the passage of these laws were unanimous. You don't see that in Washington. But I think you see that something has to be done. What can we do to be able to get these prices under control?

Bob Edwards:

For more information, go to AARP.org/stoprxgreed to find the AARP Stop RX Greed Campaign. You'll be able to get the information on what action is pending, not only in Congress but in the states and how you can make a difference.

This week we remember NASA mathematician and pioneer Katherine Johnson, who died on Monday. She was 101 years old. 

Throughout her career in NASA’s Flight Research Division, Johnson calculated precise trajectories that sent the first Americans into space in 1961 and landed Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969. 

Many will recall that her math prowess, along with the segregated conditions in which she had to work, were the subject of the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.” 

                                              

In 2018, reporter Sue Lindsey interviewed Johnson just a few months before her 100th birthday for AARP Bulletin. She remembers the experience well.

She was a very bright woman. I mean, she had a sparkle in her eyes. She was very refined, very composed. You could tell there was a real strength about her. She rose above where she was expected to be. And she was extremely bright and was able to help with space program in a remarkable way.

Lindsey kindly passed along this audio clip from her conversation with Johnson and her daughter.

Katherine Moore:

What did your father tell you?

Katherine Johnson:

You’re as good as anybody here, but you’re no better.

Katherine Moore:

That was his thing. He said ‘You’re no better than anybody else, but nobody’s better than you.’

Sue Lindsey:

To me, that means that you don’t have to take second place to anybody but don’t think of yourself as better than anybody, but you are as good as anybody else. And you have a place in this world just like everybody else does. You have a responsibility to honor that place and do the best you can with it.

You can find Lindsey’s Q&A with Katherine Johnson in our show notes.

Thank you to our news team: 

Producers Colby Nelson and Amanda Davis 

Assistant Producer Danny Alarcon

Production Assistant Brigid Lowney

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Writer Jill Higgs

Executive Producer Jason Young 

And, of course, my co-hosts Wilma Consul and Mike Ellison.

Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

For an AARP Take On Today, I’m Bob Edwards. Thanks for listening.

On this week's episode, hear how state governments are taking action to lower prescription drug prices and the relief new laws could bring for people struggling to afford their life-saving medications.

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