AUGUSTA — Democrats and Republicans in the Maine Senate voted unanimously Tuesday for a package of bills to increase transparency in prescription drug pricing and allow the state to import cheaper drugs from Canada.

In a series of 35-0 votes, senators gave initial approval to bills that would actively engage the state in efforts to reduce prescription drug costs for Maine’s aging population while pressuring manufacturers and drug middlemen to keep those costs lower.

The bills, which face additional votes in the House and Senate, have emerged as a top priority for both parties in the Legislature this year as well as for advocates for Maine’s senior citizens.

“The people of Maine are frustrated, but not only because they are having trouble affording the medication they need,” Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, said during a Senate floor speech. “They are frustrated because they can’t tell why the medication costs that much and because they are suspicious that corporations are gaining undue profits while everyday Mainers are barely making ends meet and cutting corners when it comes to their health.”

Vitelli, the assistant majority leader in the Senate, was lead sponsor of a bill that would require manufacturers of drugs that increased 20 percent or more during a calendar year to disclose the reasons for that price jump. The bill, L.D. 1162, seeks to expand upon a measure passed by lawmakers last year that led to annual reports tracking the 25 most-prescribed drugs in Maine, the costliest drugs and the drugs that experienced the largest price jump in the previous year.

Vitelli pointed to insulin as an example of a drug whose price has far-outpaced inflation – nearly doubling in price in four years – even though the life-saving medication for diabetics has been on the market for decades.

Sen. Robert Foley, R-Wells, praised the bipartisan work on the bill and other measures.

“We have seen over the last 10 years that the price of prescription drugs has risen from 10 percent to 20 percent of the cost of health care,” Foley said. “That is an unacceptable thing to happen for our citizens. This bill will start us down the path …. it gets us going in the right direction.”

Another bill that received unanimous support, L.D. 1272, would direct the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to design a wholesale drug importation program from Canada. The program, which is subject to federal approval, would require that all imported drugs meet Food and Drug Administration safety and health standards.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said prescription drug pricing is one of the reasons he became interested in politics as he watched busloads of Mainers go to Canada to purchase drugs. Jackson said the St. John River separating Maine and Canada in his district is so narrow at points that you can almost throw a rock to the other side.

Yet Jackson said the price of drugs – as well as access to health care – is far better in Canada. He also said the often-heard warnings that Canadian drugs were somehow unsafe are untrue because many of those drugs already make their way to the U.S. for legal sale.

“All we’re talking about now is Big Pharma, with their greed, making it so that the people of the United States can’t get the same prescription drugs for the same price, and that is just unconscionable,” Jackson said. “What we’ve had for far too long is a breakdown in Washington of people not willing stand up and fight for their constituents. And what we are seeing now is more and more states doing things like this because they realize that if we don’t take this state-by-state, it’s never going to happen.”

Another bill, L.D. 1499, would create a Maine Prescription Drug Affordability Board to determine spending targets. The bill also would set up a process for Maine state government and municipal governments to purchase drugs in bulk or negotiate rebates, potentially with similar programs in other states.

The final bill in the package, L.D.  1504, would re-impose a “fiduciary duty” to consumers for the pharmacy benefits managers that serve as the middleman between insurance providers and drug manufacturers. The pharmacy benefits management industry is under increasing scrutiny amid allegations that some companies are reaping large profits rather than lowering costs for consumers.

The bill would require that pharmacy benefits managers pass along all drug rebates to consumers or insurers and offer the “cash price” for a drug if it is lower than a person’s drug co-pay. It also tightens financial disclosure requirements.

“L.D. 1504 is about making PBMs more transparent in their contracting and ensuring that they work on behalf of Mainers to get Mainers better access to affordable drugs rather than lining the pockets of their own investors,” said Sen. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, the bill’s sponsor.

The bills now go to the House for consideration.


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