BY RUTH DUGAN
If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that our nation needs to get serious about our approach to public health. There are many flaws and inefficiencies in the healthcare system in need of reform, but one of the most pressing is the astronomically high costs that drug companies charge for prescription medication. The sticker shock that patients face to fill life-saving drugs is a burden for too many families, and if we are truly going to build our country back following the pandemic, bringing down prescription drug costs has to be our top goal.
The issue is more pervasive than many may realize, because millions of Americans in every corner of the country take prescriptions. According to a 2019 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, nearly half of all Americans used prescription medication, and 85 percent of people over age 60. These prescriptions are often indispensable, as they help people manage serious chronic conditions and enjoy the good quality of life that everyone deserves.
Yet despite the necessity of these drugs for so many people, pharmaceutical companies still charge outrageously onerous prices. According to CSRxP, prescription spending accounts for 20 percent of all U.S. healthcare spending, and roughly one-in-four Americans cannot afford their prescriptions. According to a report by the RAND Corporation, prescriptions in the U.S. cost an average 2.5 times more than the same drugs overseas.
Even during the pandemic, when millions of people were out of work, drug companies continued to hike their prices unabated. In January 2021, when COVID-19 case numbers were at their peak and an average 3,000 Americans were dying every day, pharmaceutical companies nonetheless raised prices an average 4.5%, per GoodRx.
In New Jersey, the human cost of these prices is palpable. A survey by Altarum found that roughly half of all New Jerseyans, and a vast majority of lower-income residents, worry about the cost of prescriptions. Troublingly, nearly a third of all residents reported that they have rationed or cut their prescriptions in half to avoid the added costs.
Aside from the human cost, this crisis represents a major drag on our economy. When Americans are spending significant portions of their income on prescriptions, they can’t afford to spend as much at their local small business, or taking a summer vacation, or saving for their kids’ college fund. All the while, pharmaceutical companies continue to rake in massive profits on the backs of struggling Americans. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the top pharmaceutical companies posted profits of $8.6 trillion between 2000 and 2018 – the highest profit margins of any industry.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Over the years there have been countless proposals – such as letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, for one – that can make a real impact at bringing down costs. Unfortunately, progress has been frustratingly slow, and the stalemates in Washington have allowed good faith debates to end without solutions.
As we move past the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clearer than ever before that we need to hold drug companies accountable and make serious reforms to many issues in our healthcare system. I’ll be encouraging our U.S. Senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, and all of our representatives, to make it a priority this year. Because if they do, the lives of many New Jerseyans will be changed for the better.
Candidate for NJ Senate in LD 39
Former Chair of the Bayonne Medical Center
Former President of Gilda’s Club of Northern NJ