Lower costs, more cures and who takes credit

| February 25, 2020 12:06 PM

President Trump has called on Congress to support efforts to lower the outrageous costs of prescription drugs, and what’s playing out in Congress is the political version of the “Me Too” movement.

It’s one that everybody wants to be a part of. Sen. Mike Crapo recently joined Republican colleagues in introducing the “Lower Costs, More Cures Act,” which has the support of Idaho’s congressional delegation. Who could possibly vote against something called the “Lower Costs, More Cures Act?” It would be like voting against motherhood, apple pie and sunny summer days on a beach.

But in this “Me Too” movement, other bills are crawling out of the woodwork. Crapo’s spokesman tells me that some 17 bills are in the works to lower prescription costs — with those on the GOP side vying for Trump’s approval. Of course, Trump’s endorsement automatically means opposition from Democrats, who have been labeled by the president as “corrupt, evil, dirty cops.” Democrats would rather put their chips on “Medicare for all,” which stands zero chance of getting a single Republican vote.

These prescription drug bills are complicated, but there’s one feature of Crapo’s backed Senate bill that has some clarity. It places an out-of-pocket cap of $50 on insulin and insulin medical supplies — which is akin to telling people with diabetes (such as myself) that they have won the lottery. It sounds almost too good to be true.

Idaho Congressman Russ Fulcher, who is sponsoring the House version of the bill, says it’s all difficult to explain — and there’s no easy place to begin. “But the math works,” he says, and it’s not just for folks who are on Medicare.

OK … let’s take Fulcher at his word and hold him to it. He says the proposal also applies to other life-dependent drugs.

The cost of insulin is criminal, jumping 64 percent in the last five years. It costs hundreds of dollars, even for those on Medicare and, to a lot of people, it’s unaffordable on the open market. So with some folks, they have a gloomy choice — buy groceries and pay the rent, or pay for the insulin they need to stay alive.

But capping insulin and supplies at $50 is a nice place to start the conversation. As a result of the price gouging that we’ve seen over the years, people either ration insulin or quit taking it entirely — often leading to clogged hearts, kidney failure, blindness and amputations. People don’t die directly from diabetes … it’s the complications that increase business at funeral homes.

There’s no need to lecture Crapo about insulin, or other life-sustaining drugs. “However, these drugs are only effective if patients can afford them,” he said in a recent commentary. “Alarmingly, a recent study suggested that in 2017, 37 percent of Idaho residents stopped taking medications as prescribed due to costs.”

Crapo says that the Senate bill he backs “includes provisions that already have broad, bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress and focuses on achievable areas of agreement that can truly make prescription drugs more affordable. America is the leader in biopharmaceutical developments, and this bill will help bring life-saving therapies to patients at lower costs, without stifling market-driven innovation.”

It sounds good, but the challenge is making his favored bill the law of the land. The Senate has to settle on something that will get at least 60 votes, and there’s no apparent consensus on any of the 17 plans out there. Then, it goes to the House, which is certain to reject anything viewed as a “Republican” bill. Forget about anything that doesn’t have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s backing.

“I would happily remove my name from co-sponsorship and put hers on if she’ll give it a hearing,” Fulcher says. “If she wants credit for it, that’s perfectly fine … or if the Democrats want to call it their bill, I don’t care. This is a win-win, and all we have to do is get Nancy on board.”

Congress has an opportunity to accomplish something beyond impeachment of a president and acquittal. If the politicos can lower the cost of prescription drugs, this year could go down as one of the most productive congressional sessions in recent history — even with all the political strife.

Don’t get your hopes up.

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Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist and Silver Valley native, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.