Don Barron never dreamed he would be sitting on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 13 listening to the president of the United States extol the virtues of a law that Barron fought for as a member of AARP’s Capitol Hill Strike Force.
“I never thought I’d be here,” said Barron, a retired middle school principal. “I thought that was always for the bigwigs.” After four decades as an educator, Barron joined the strike force, a group of AARP volunteers who have worked for years to get legislation passed to lower the cost of prescription drugs and other measures important to the 50-plus population.
Barron said as he, other strike force members and AARP leaders, including CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, joined in the celebration, attendees came by and said "thank you." He and his fellow volunteers were hard to miss, dressed in their bright red AARP golf shirts. “We were very popular. A lot of people saying ‘thanks for your service.’ It was very touching,” said Barron.
“We would not be here today celebrating this monumental victory were it not for our dedicated AARP volunteers and members,” said Jenkins. “By telling their heart-wrenching stories of how high drug prices have devastated their household budgets and disrupted their lives, they put a face on this issue and made Congress understand that they had to act now to bring down the high cost of prescription drugs.”
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AARP leaders also promised to keep up the fight. “Today we celebrated historic prescription drug pricing reforms that will lower the cost of life-saving medications for millions of older Americans," said Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer. "While we took this moment to savor the victory and recognize the contributions of AARP’s volunteers, we will need their focus and energy in the weeks, months, and years to come because the fight is not over. Big Pharma won't stop trying to protect their profits, but rest assured we won’t back down.”
Victory over Big Pharma
More than 1,000 people gathered on the White House grounds to celebrate the enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, a law that will allow Medicare to negotiate the prices of some prescription drugs for the first time ever, will cap out-of-pocket Rx costs for Medicare Part D members, and will hold drugmakers accountable for price increases they levy over and above the rate of inflation. The measure also limits monthly out-of-pocket insulin charges to $35 for Medicare beneficiaries and expands the availability of financial help for enrollees with limited incomes.
President Joe Biden had already signed the legislation in August, just days after it cleared both houses of Congress. The White House celebration was designed to highlight the historic nature of the measure, which also includes landmark climate change and tax provisions.
“We pay more for our prescription drugs than any developed nation in the world,” said Biden, speaking to the crowd in shirtsleeves on a sunlit afternoon. “There’s no rhyme of reason for that.” The president said many people tried for years to fix that problem but were blocked by the big drug companies.
“But not this year,” Biden said to cheers. “This year the American people won and Big Pharma lost.”
Brenda Carroll, who worked for AARP before she retired, said she knows the new law will help people who cannot afford their medications.
“I have met people who are bypassing buying their prescriptions or who are bypassing food in order to get their prescriptions,” said Carroll, who lives in Washington, D.C. “I met an Uber driver who gives his grandmother $700 a month just to pay for her prescriptions. She’s on a fixed income, and if it were not for him she would not be able to do it.”
Perseverance pays off
AARP’s strike force has been ever-present on Capitol Hill, showing up at hearings on the need for prescription drug reform and joining CEO Jenkins at a news conference at the U.S. Senate in July, just weeks before the Senate voted on the landmark bill.
Volunteers and AARP members across the country also called, emailed and texted their lawmakers urging them to support the prescription drug legislation. More than 4 million Americans signed petitions urging Congress to act.
“AARP having a consistent presence in Congress as bills go through committee — not just on prescription drugs but on other bills that would help seniors — makes a difference,” said Tom Vollmer, a strike force member from Washington, D.C. Vollmer, who retired from the computer industry, said being at the White House was like being part of history. “But even better was being at the White House with all the people who helped make all the different parts of the bill happen. That was really special.”
Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.