NEW HARTFORD — Prescription drug costs in the Mohawk Valley Health System rose 48 percent between 2013 and 2017.
President/CEO Scott Perra shared that information at a news conference with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who visited the pharmacy at the health system’s St. Luke’s Campus to push a package of four bills designed to lower drug prices.
The health system has found that many patients who leave the hospital don’t fill their prescriptions or cut pills in half because the medicine costs too much, Perra said.
“It affects our patients and families directly, and it affects our institution,” he said.
Gillibrand said she’s backing four Democratic bills to provide some relief:
• “The first one is very simple,” she said. “It makes price gouging illegal.” Pharmaceutical companies would be required to report price increases and to justify those increases. Excessive, unjustified increases would lead to tax penalties.
• Another bill would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, a cost-saving measure that Medicaid and the Department of Veterans Affairs already use.
• The third bill would allow wholesalers, pharmacies and individuals to import some prescription drugs from Canada, where drugs are cheaper.
• The fourth would put a monthly cap of $250 per person and $500 per family on how much health plan members could spend on co-payments.
“These are just four simple ideas that can make a huge difference,” Gillibrand said.
They attack the “fraud and manipulation in the market” that often leads to high drug prices, she said.
Nothing changes easily in Washington, D.C., though, Gillibrand said, so she asked residents to share their own stories and to make the push for change.
To underscore the human toll of expensive drugs, Gillibrand shared a story she heard while traveling through the state. A senior couple was living on a fixed income with $60,000 in savings, she said. The husband was diagnosed with an illness that required a $5,000-a-month drug treatment. Taking the drug for one year would have extended his life, but eaten up the couple’s savings.
“So he chose not to take that medication,” Gillibrand said. “He died nine months later.”
In 2015, Daraprim, a then 62-year-old drug to fight a life-threatening parasitic infection, became the poster drug for price gouging when it was bought by Turing Pharmaceuticals, which was founded by Martin Shkreli. Turing promptly raised the price from $13.50 a tablet to $750 a tablet.
Gillibrand’s bill would prevent those kinds of price increases but not affect the initial prices at which drug makers offer their products.
By making drug purchases in Canada legal, consumers could save big on some drugs. EpiPens cost $650 in the United States but $250 in Canada, the senator pointed out. And Advair, a common asthma medication, costs $1,100 in the U.S. and $360 in Canada, she said.
Chris Houle, clinical coordinator in the St. Luke’s pharmacy, provided another example of how price increases hurt local patients. Calcium EDTA is used to treat lead poisoning, a problem more common in Utica than in most places, but the price has risen in the last few years from $1,000 a case to $26,000.
And that, he said, makes it hard for the pharmacy to keep on hand for life-threatening cases. And the health system ends up bearing most of the brunt, he said, for such sharp increases in drug prices.
Contact reporter Amy Neff Roth at 315-792-5166 or follow her on Twitter (@OD_Roth).