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Affordable Prescription Drugs in Ohio

Tuesday, February 4, 2003 at 2:49 PM

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A national debate is raging over what to do about the rising cost of prescription drugs and how to pay for them. Here in Ohio, one group thinks the state needs to take matters into its own hands. The Ohio Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs is demanding lower prices now. The organization is backing a bill that would allow the state to broker the lowest possible price for drugs. The savings would be passed on to over 2 million Ohioans. But opponents are fighting the effort in election offices, the Supreme Court and at the Statehouse. ideastream's Mike West has more.

It all started 2 years ago when Ohio House Bill 290 was introduced. The proposal creates a drug discount program. It would force drug makers to give the state the same discount as the federal government receives when it buys drugs for medicare clients.
John Gallo is a coordinator for the Ohio Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs. He says those in need would get a card and discounts of up to 60% at the drug store.

John Gallo: This bill would apply to everyone in the state who needs prescription coverage. Whether Medicare, seniors, people who are unemployed, people who are working but don’t have coverage. Even people who have coverage that may be inadequate.

The administration of the program is complex, but the bottom line is drug makers would have to give the state their lowest price. Backers say it’s fair because the financially disadvantaged should get the same discount as the U.S. government.

Two years later, the bill sits on a shelf collecting dust. That’s why the coalition held a petition drive to force legislators to consider the proposal.

This is a meeting room at Cuyahoga County Board’s headquarters in Cleveland. Petition signatures were certified here and in 43 other counties across the state. During the process, lawyers for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America trade group challenged thousands of signatures. Hundreds were disqualified, but most were accepted. Emily Foster is a public relations spokeswoman for the drug industry trade group PHRMA.

Emily Foster: I think that in this case PHRMA is just doing what it’s entitled to do under the law, to act on it’s own behalf in this particular process and they would, they oppose the specific approach being spelled out in the initiative. We think that is a bad approach.

Foster says it’s wrong to force her clients to sell drugs at discount prices. She says it cuts into profits which are used for the benefit of all.

Emily Foster: It’s in effect price controls, which will strike a blow at the ability of the pharmaceutical manufactures to conduct their business, to do research and develop new drugs as well.

Ohio Senator Lynn Watchman agrees with drug makers. He’s the chair of the Health, Human Service and Aging Committee.

Lynn Watchman: My issue with this type of legislation, it is, in a sense, price fixing by state government. What this would do if other states followed suit is artificially, dramatically bring down the price of pharmacy drugs and it would all but demolish or ruin the profitability of pharmaceutical companies to be able to afford to research for new wonder drugs that save lives.

Watchman thinks the problem is compounded because other countries already get discounts and impose price caps on drug makers. He insists it’s best not to meddle in pricing matters. Watchman says some ohioans must pay full price in order to subsidize the discounts of others.

Lynn Watchman: So part of this issue and a long term solution would be in treaties and debate that takes place on free trade and those types of issues on an international basis. If we try to pressure other nations to lift those artificial caps on pharmaceutical prices so that the pharmaceutical companies could make higher profit margins to help cover research costs.

Robert Hagen: That’s hogwash.

Ohio Senator Robert Hagen. He’s a sponsor of a similar bill in the senate. Hagan doubts foreign customers would surrender low-priced medicine in favor of helping the drug industry boost profits.

Robert Hagen: This isn’t about the Americans or Ohioans paying more so that others can have a discount. It really is about allowing the pharmaceutical industry to rip us off, that’s all that is.

Hagan doesn’t buy the argument that lower prices would put an end to drug research. He insists drug companies make enough money to offer the needy their best price on medicine and make money.

Robert Hagen: We should be getting the same discounts as our neighbors to the north and south of us and were not doing it because people like Senator Watchman and some of the Republicans, I might add, are protecting the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. Shame on them.

Back at the election board room, Lou Owen was among a packed house of Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drug supporters. He looked on as PHRMA lawyers argued over removing names from the drug discount petition. The former steel worker is on social security disability and has trouble paying for his medicine.

Lou Owen: We need help when it comes to getting medication. Right now, I need my hypertension tabs, I don’t have ‘em because I can’t afford ‘em. I need cholesterol tabs, I don’t have because I can’t afford ‘em. When I talked to my doctor about it and I explained that I can’t afford it, he explains to me that if you don’t make some kind of way of getting them, then you’re only playing russian roulette with your life. Well that’s not only me, it’s millions of people in the same situation.

The drug discount petitions are being certified by the Secretary of State. If there are enough, lawmakers will have the option to amend, pass or to continue to ignore the proposal. After 4 months goes by, the coalition will have the option of getting additional signatures and placing the plan before voters.

Meanwhile, both sides are watching events in the state of Maine which passed a similar law two years ago. It was challenged by the drug industry and is being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are expected to announce a decision this spring. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3.

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