Warnock pushes caps on prescription costs, negotiated Medicare drug prices

By: - July 2, 2022 9:17 am

Sen. Raphael Warnock listens to testimony at a U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging in Fayetteville. Warnock said the hearing was the committee’s first field hearing to take place in Georgia. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

A senior center in Fayetteville hosted a U.S. Senate committee hearing the first day of July on the high cost of prescription drugs for American seniors, a topic Gretchen Spring of Marietta is deeply familiar with.

Her husband, Peter, died in April after doctors diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. During his fight with the disease, he was taking 11 different medications, and the couple would spend about $1,000 per month on medicine – with insurance.

“I loved Peter dearly, and I did what I could to keep him healthy,” Spring said. “When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he had to leave the workforce, and I started my fourth career as caregiver, which played havoc on our finances. But at the same time, it was also important to me to listen to our doctors about our health. That meant putting the cost of our medications on our credit cards, sometimes maxing out our limits. And the last thing a senior citizen with a fixed income wants is to use the credit cards with 21 to 28% interest rates.”

Spring said the high drug prices forced them to put off home repairs and sometimes make difficult decisions about purchasing essentials like groceries.

“At one point, we even reached out to family members about setting up a GoFundMe page because of the strain on our finances,” she said. “It was only because of a friend’s generosity and our pension funds that we didn’t go into debt, and we went through $60,000 of pension money.”

Spring spoke at Fayetteville Senior Services center south of Atlanta as part of a hearing of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging led by Democratic Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock.

“People don’t know which way to turn,” Warnock said after the hearing. “They’re already navigating just the health care issues themselves, but then compounded by the issue of affordability, and this is something that Congress can do something about, and we ought to do what we can do.”

Warnock said he intends to return to Washington after Independence Day to push for a pair of bills to ease the strain on seniors’ pocketbooks. The Capping Drug Costs for Seniors Act would cap the out-of-pocket costs of prescription drugs for Medicare Part D users to $2,000 per month, and the Affordable Insulin Now Act would lower insulin costs to $35 per month.

Warnock said he also supports allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

While inflation creates a financial squeeze for Georgians at the gas pump and in grocery aisles, drug prices have grown even faster, hitting seniors harder than the general population, said Lee Baker, past president of AARP Georgia.

“For years, prescription drug price increases have dwarfed even the highest rates of general inflation,” he said. “If consumer prices had risen as fast as drug prices over the last 15 years, gas would now cost $12.20 a gallon, and milk would be $13 a gallon. Just in January, the drug industry raised prices on over 800 prescription medications—just as they have increased prices for decades—including three-quarters of the top 100 drugs with the highest spending in Medicare Part D.”

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Dr. Keerthi Gogineni, an oncologist who practices at Grady Health System and Emory University School of Medicine, recalled one stage 4 breast cancer patient who came to her office in February.

Gogineni prescribed two drugs that she said could prolong the woman’s life for years, but at a follow-up appointment in March, the woman had yet to start one of them because it was too expensive. The brand name version of the drug would have cost $6,000 per month, and even with insurance, the generic version of the pill would have cost $1,450 per month, completely unaffordable for a senior citizen on a fixed income.

“We tried to get her access to a manufacturer’s assistance program, but to qualify, she had to be prescribed the branded drug. Her insurance repeatedly denied permission to do so, despite us explaining in a series of appeals that the generic drug was still unaffordable and that the branded drug would enable access to copay assistance,” Gogineni said. “Our social worker applied for support from three different foundations, but funds had dried up. Finally, we were finally able to get a patient assistance program to supply her drug through December. It took four months of effort from the patient, a dedicated pharmacist and social worker to get a patient with health insurance onto a standard of care regimen for her metastatic breast cancer.”

Liz Ernst, state director for the Georgia chapter of the left-leaning health care advocacy group Protect Our Care, said that the story is sadly all too familiar, testifying about patients who must ration their life-saving medications developing vision loss, kidney compromise, depression and anxiety.

“Every day, drugmakers exploit our broken health care system by hiking the prices of life saving medicines in order to make record breaking profits,” she said. “Between 2019 and 2020, half of all drugs covered by Medicare Part D had price increases equal to or greater than the rate of inflation. A 2020 congressional report traced the steep price hikes of the cancer drug Revlimid to the desire of executives to ‘meet company revenue targets and shareholder earnings goals.’ In Georgia, (Bristol Myers Squibb’s) Revlimid’s price rose 44% from 2015 to 2020.”

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Warnock said Congress’ ability to address concerns like high prescription prices will require people to speak out.

“When you look at this issue around prescription drugs and the fact that Medicare can’t even negotiate cost, why is that? It’s because somebody other than the people increasingly has a stranglehold on the democracy,” he said. “It is these kinds of anti-democratic forces, whether we’re talking about dark money in our politics, or the outsize influence of bad actors in the corporate sphere, who are price gouging right now, we can do something about all of these things to the degree that the people’s voices are heard in the democracy.”

Warnock is set to face off against Republican Herschel Walker in November for the right to retain the seat he won in a runoff early last year. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday found Warnock with a 10-point lead over Walker, though most polls have shown a tighter race. Real Clear Politics’ polling average gives Warnock a lead of 1.6 points.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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