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Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley Seeks To Rein In High Prescription Drug Prices

The bill would tie U.S. drug prices to a median price in 11 countries where prescriptions are much cheaper.
April 22, 2021

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley on Thursday introduced a bill that takes aim at high prescription drug costs with a new system of price controls. 

The legislation, dubbed the “End Price Gouging for Medications Act,” would require that drug companies set their prices based on the median drug costs in 11 other industrialized, wealthy nations with costs that are a fraction of the costs in the United States. Those nations are: Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Price differences between the United States and those nations are staggering. For example, a Lantus SolarStar insulin prescription in the United States can cost $373. But that same product costs just $47 in France and $67 in Canada.  American patients with hepatitis C pay $30,000 for medication that costs $13,020 in Japan.

In Oregon, the top five most expensive prescription drugs ranged from $23,000 to $43,000 per prescription, according to Oregon’s 2020 prescription drug transparency report. The priciest drugs typically are for relatively rare illnesses that are severe or fatal and hard to treat.

“When it comes down to it, we have allowed Americans to be ripped off for far too long,” Merkley, D-Oregon, said in a call with reporters. 

Oregon lawmakers are considering a variety of bills to rein in pharmaceutical prices this session. Lawmakers have introduced a bill that would limit out-of-pocket prices for insulin. Another bill would set up a prescription drug affordability board to set  price controls on expensive drugs. In 2018, Oregon lawmakers passed legislation that put in place a drug transparency program that requires pharmaceutical companies to disclose prices and report price increases at least sixty days in advance.

Under Merkley’s bill, U.S. prescription prices would be based on international costs like  a reference price that people in the U.S. market would pay. Violators would face civil penalties five times the difference between the retail price for consumers and the reference price. Any penalties would go to the National Institutes of Health for drug research and development work. 

Merkley said he frequently hears concerns from Oregonians about high drug prices during town hall events. The prices force patients to cut their medications in half or skip their treatment, worsening their health and quality of care, he said.

“Every American -- regardless of the color of their skin, their ZIP code, or their income -- should have access to the medicines they need to stay healthy,” Merkley said. “But the reality is, many Americans are not getting their prescriptions filled, or are rationing their medication, because pharmaceutical companies keep hiking their already out-of-control prices.”

On average, Americans spend about $1,200 per person each year, according to a Bloomberg report Merkley’s office cited. Nearly one-fourth of Americans who take prescriptions say they have skipped doses, cut their pills down or not filled a prescription because of the high cost.

Merkley is co-sponsoring the legislation with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont. Merkley said they will push to include their legislation into President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, a legislative package of domestic priorities that the White House is expected to release next week when Biden gives a joint address to Congress on Thursday. 

Advocacy groups have long called for prescription drug price reform. National groups praised the bill as the right step forward.

“Giant prescription drug corporations rip off consumers and our government has long helped them do it, giving corporations special monopoly powers to block competition and allowing these monopolists to charge any price they like,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Program in a statement.

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.