WASHINGTON D.C. — As public frustration with rising prescription drug prices rises, Maine’s four-member congressional delegation is rallying behind efforts to lower the cost.

“Skyrocketing drug prices are making it more and more difficult for Americans to access the treatments they require,” U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said recently.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden meets Maine Medical Association President Dr. Robert Schlager of Pittsfield outside the congressman’s office in Washington. The two discussed health care issues including rising drug prices.

“Year after year, Mainers get soaked by high drug prices. It’s past time our country addressed this issue,” said U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a 2nd District Democrat.

There is a bipartisan willingness to tackle the problem, but whether politicians can get behind any particular bills to address it remains an open question.

Pointing out that yearly price hikes of as much as 40 percent have occurred for some of the most popular prescription drugs in Maine, Golden introduced a bill Wednesday to go after drug companies that raise their prices on a particular drug more than 10 percent in a year.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a 1st District Democrat, is pushing legislation to allow Americans to purchase lower-cost prescriptions from Canadian pharmacies.

The state’s two U.S. senators — Collins and independent Angus King — each back a bipartisan measure to combat anti-competitive practices used by some brand-name drug companies to block entry of lower-cost generic drugs.

It’s not clear, though, that lawmakers will succeed in enacting anything that would make a serious dent in the high cost of prescription medication, an issue that consistently polls as one of the biggest worries for many Americans. A 2018 AARP survey, for instance, found that 92 percent of voters age 50 and older said candidates’ views on lowering drug costs were important to them.

Collins, as chair of the Senate Aging Committee, has long used her position to focus attention on the cost of medications, a problem she calls “one of my top priorities.”

King said that “the rising cost of prescription medication continues to be one of the most pressing issues facing Maine people. Whether it’s a senior on a fixed income, or a working family trying to make ends meet, or an employer paying for private insurance, these prices are a serious challenge for Maine people across our state.”

In his State of the Union address this month, President Donald Trump called it “a major priority for me and for all of us.”

“It is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place. This is wrong, unfair and together we can stop it,” Trump said.

The pharmaceutical industry, however, has a large lobbying presence on Capitol Hill and is one of the most generous funders of political campaigns across the country. It has long been successful in protecting its interests.

“For years, Big Pharma has reaped record profits by jacking up the prices of drugs and squeezing every last cent out of regular folks who need their medicine to lead healthy lives,” Golden said in a prepared statement. “Our bill puts the needs of Maine people before corporations.”

Golden’s new bill, the Forcing Limits on Abusive and Tumultuous (FLAT) Prices Act, would impose penalties on drug companies whenever the price of a prescription drug spikes more than 10 percent in a year or 18 percent during a two-year period or 25 percent over the course of three years.

The consequence for violating the proposed law would be a six-month reduction in the market exclusivity period for the drug. Higher increases would take away more time that companies can’t face competition.

The measure, which has a companion bill in the Senate introduced by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, wouldn’t apply to all drugs — pediatric and rare disease exclusivity rules wouldn’t change. But it would mandate that pharmaceutical makers inform the federal government within 30 days of price increases that fall within the parameters of the bill.

Pingree is no newcomer to the issue.

She recently reintroduced legislation that she’s pushed for the last two sessions of Congress that would let Americans purchase lower-cost medication from Canada, a proposal endorsed this time around by U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree

“I’ve heard from so many individuals and families who don’t know what to do about shocking increases in their medication costs — whether it’s the prescription they need to manage their high cholesterol or asthma, or the EpiPen that could save their life during an allergic reaction,” Pingree said.

“Just across the border in Canada, most medications are available at a fraction of the cost, because their government negotiates on price,” she said.

“Right now, we are denying our citizens access to those safe, lower-priced alternatives just to keep pharmaceutical companies happy,” Pingree said. “This bill would put an end to that and offer some much-needed relief to consumers.”

The Creating and Restoring Equal Access To Equivalent Samples Act endorsed by Collins and King would deter pharmaceutical companies from blocking cheaper generic alternatives from entering the marketplace.

Collins said in a prepared statement that the measure “combats the gaming that some brand companies engage in to unlawfully extend their market power and pricing controls.”

“Passing this legislation is important action Congress can take now that will have an immediate impact on the development and approval of generic and biosimilar drugs,” she said.

Drug prices vary widely. Some of the most frequently used ones in Maine are pretty cheap, less than $5, but others can be much higher.

The Maine Health Data Organization found in the most recent year for which it has data, the most costly prescription for Mainers was for Humira Pens, a brand-name drug typically prescribed for arthritis pain. It costs $75,000 over the course of a year for the 2,000 Mainers who needed it.

The most frequently prescribed drug was hydrochlorothiazide, a generic blood pressure medication, with Suboxone, a brand-name drug used to treat opiate dependence, coming in second.

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