I’ll be attending the State of the Union Tuesday night as a guest of Rep. Lucy McBath. Among many things he will say that night, I expect President Trump to tout his “terrific plans” to help us afford our medications. But as a doctor and a patient, I know that in three years we’ve made zero progress on controlling runaway drug prices, and the suffering of patients goes unchecked.
While we can all be grateful for recent innovations in prescription drugs to treat cancer, the cost of these drugs is so astronomical that patients, like my father, become hostage to a system that cares more about profit than patients. My father was prescribed Revlimid to treat his cancer, at a cost of almost $15,000 a month. The annual cost of my father’s three-drug treatment regimen was over $250,000 a year.
Because my father had saved all his life, he was not eligible for any help paying for this medication though he was far from rich. In fact, he had less savings because, until the passage of the Affordable Care Act, he had been forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars keeping me alive since my insurance often did not cover my pre-existing genetic disorder. Now my father needed money for his medication, and we dipped into our savings again. As he struggled for his life, he worried about how much money he would be able to leave my mother and considered just going on hospice.
Medicare Part D, created in 2003, explicitly prohibits Medicare from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. As a result, Americans pay far higher prices for medications than any other country. Revlimid, for example, costs four times more in the United States than it does in England. Its manufacturer, Celgene, sued to prohibit a generic version of the drug (that costs only $200 a month) from being available in America.
We are in a healthcare crisis of our own making. In September 2019, House Democrats introduced HR 3, The Lower Drug Costs Now Act, to negotiate prices on some of the most expensive and most essential medications covered by Medicare, including Revlimid. Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell immediately said they wouldn’t consider any bill involved in “price-fixing,” and though President Trump initially welcomed the initiative, he has since rejected the proposal.
These medications are the difference between life and death. And, as in my father’s case, their price tag is so high that sometimes death seems the more reasonable choice. My father was not alone in considering death over medical bills. Suicides and homicides have been reported when patients realize that either they or their loved ones cannot afford their medications. A reasonable and humane plan to control drug prices is sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk. If President Trump and the Republicans wanted to do something to help cancer patients, they could bring it to the floor. If I get a chance on Tuesday night, I’ll be sure to ask them to do just that.
— Jamie Weisman