Capping costs no substitute for lowering drug prices

Sue Dinsdale is the director of Iowa Citizen Action Network and leads the Health Care For America and Lower Drug Prices NOW campaigns in Iowa.

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley got it right when speaking about efforts to lower prescription costs. He acknowledged the “difficulty of passing something like this in a Republican Congress,” adding, “If we want to reduce drug prices, then we need to do it now.”

For years we’ve been hearing members of Congress promise to tackle rising drug prices without any action. Prescription drugs and the outrageous price of medicine has made reform a top issue that attracts bipartisan support. A recent national poll indicated that 91 percent of voters consider lowering drug prices a very important issue in the upcoming election, ranking it above COVID-19 worries. 

Long before the pandemic or inflation concerns, millions have worried about being able to afford their prescriptions. Drug corporations have been raising prices faster than inflation for years, while people of all ages struggle to keep up or are forced to choose between medicine and other basic necessities.

People in Iowa and across the nation have waited too long for a solution to prescription drug price-gouging and it is time for Congress to act. Right now there is majority support in the Senate for tackling prices through negotiations in Medicare and passing legislation that would finally put in place common sense reform to address rising prices. 

We hear a lot about creating a national insulin cap, but any proposal that caps the cost of one or more drugs will not fundamentally address the root of the problem, which is rising prices. We need our elected representatives to help seniors and others afford their medicine by supporting price negotiations that actually stop the drug corporations from charging whatever they want and raising prices at will.

Cost containment can only have limited impact for a limited number of patients. The burden will continue to rise for taxpayers, businesses and those paying premiums.

Capping the cost of insulin (or co-pays for insulin) may be worthy ideas, but not a solution. It won’t stop drug corporations from setting the price of cancer drugs outrageously high and forcing up to half of cancer patients into debt to get life-saving treatments. It won’t stop drug corporations from raising prices on common drugs that seniors and the rest of us use every day. Caps may mean individuals pay less at the pharmacy, but they will pay more in premiums and more in taxes for programs like Medicare thanks to cost-shifting. 

The price of half the drugs in Medicare, the health care program for seniors, increased faster than inflation in 2020. Those premium increases were not tied to one specific drug, but rather to thousands of commonly used medications. Currently, there is no limit on what seniors pay out of pocket for drugs in Part D, forcing many to skip doses, not fill prescriptions, or forgo other critical needs to get their medicines. 

These are necessary fixes that Congress needs to address to limit out of pocket costs. But it shouldn’t stop there. To get to the root of the problem, we need to be able to negotiate prices for medicines in Medicare the way other government agencies already do. The Department of Veterans Affairs and Medicaid pay half of what Medicare pays for prescription medicines, thanks to negotiated prices.

We already know that negotiating prices will get consumers a better deal than continuing to give drug corporations monopoly power to set and keep their prices high. It’s that monopoly power that enables the corporations to raise prices twice a year. In 2022 alone, drug corporations have already raised the price of over 800 medicines by more than 5 percent. Capping costs—on insulin or any other drug—is an important step toward affordability but it doesn’t curtail drug corporations’ price-gouging.  

There is a solution: Combine cost-containment measures with policies that rein in rising costs, like Medicare negotiations and inflation caps. It’s time for our Iowa delegation to follow U.S. Representative Cindy Axne’s lead and heed the comments from Senator Grassley and support sensible legislation that would make medicines affordable for everyone. 

Top photo of Sue Dinsdale provided by the author and published with permission.

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