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Opinion | Michigan must do more to lower the cost of prescription drugs

Affordable, accessible health care should be a right to all, but too many Michiganders are being left out, especially when it comes to affording lifesaving prescription medications whose prices have continued to skyrocket regardless of state, national or global economic circumstances.

Winnie Brinks, Harshini Jayasuriya
Sen. Winnie Brinks is a Democrat representing Grand Rapids in the Michigan Senate. Dr. Harshini Jayasuriya is a family physician from Lansing and a member of the Committee to Protect Health Care(Courtesy photos)

During the pandemic, for-profit insurance companies reported billion-dollar profits and staggering revenue growth. Meanwhile, in 2020, price increases for 500 prescription drugs doubled the inflation rate. For many years, heart disease has remained the deadliest killer in the U.S., yet too many people are skipping lifesaving heart medications because of cost. Strokes and lower respiratory diseases like emphysema and COPD are among the top 5 deadliest diseases. Yet, patients with COPD spend $6,200 more each year in medical costs compared to other patients.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated disparities in health care for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) — injustices that result in higher rates of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and asthma that have rendered these populations more likely to be uninsured or underinsured and therefore, disproportionately impacted by the excessive cost of prescription medications. This reduced ability to afford treatment often intensifies the health problems in BIPOC communities and promotes poor health outcomes, including death.

Something must give, and it must give quickly. Physicians are spending more time helping patients scramble to find medications they can afford or risk them dropping treatment altogether, leading to more, increasingly complex chronic health problems for the individual. 

While we are encouraged by actions the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have taken recently to lower the cost of prescription drugs in our state, there is still more work to be done to increase transparency in prescription drug price-setting. 

That is why we are proud to stand behind legislation in Michigan to create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board to review the costs of certain prescriptions and establish upper payment limits on the most expensive prescription drugs. The public would be welcome to be part of this process as well, in addition to other experts willing to share their experience and knowledge. The board would be composed of five members with expertise in health care economics or clinical medicine, and — perhaps more importantly — without personal or financial interest in the industry.

Michigan needs to rein in the runaway cost of prescription drugs. The increased transparency and accountability in Senate Bills 889-892 and House Bills 5842-5845 to address the cost of a prescription at the point-of-sale can directly reduce costs. This is both an economic and moral imperative that can help physicians and patients, as well as start the long and necessary work to make a dent in addressing racial disparities in health outcomes.

By establishing Prescription Drug Affordability Boards in their states, Maryland and Colorado have refused to accept the status quo. It is time for Michigan to join them in leading the effort to make lifesaving prescription drugs more affordable for our residents.

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