Close to Home: Lower drug prices might limit access

July 26, 2021
The Press Democrat
By Bill Remak

A lack of racial diversity in clinical trials is a long-standing, well-documented problem that contributes to the stark health inequalities that have been brought into sharp focus by COVID-19.

Many Americans living with chronic illness are waiting. Waiting for answers. Waiting to not be in pain. Waiting to feel better. And mostly, waiting for new treatments and cures that will allow them to live life to the fullest.

I’m all too familiar with the waiting game. Diagnosed with hepatitis C at 14, I battled liver disease, had two liver transplants and endured countless visits to the emergency room for chronic kidney disease and diabetes. As a result of innovation and research, I’m cured of a devastating liver disease that plagued my life for over half a century. And now I can enjoy a very fulfilling quality of life.

Sadly, this won’t be the case for other Americans should Congress let pass an ill-conceived, shortsighted prescription drug pricing proposal now pending in Washington.

House Resolution 3, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, purportedly seeks to lower the cost of prescription medications in the U.S. by tying the price of drugs here to the lowest cost of medications in a half-dozen other countries, including Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany. On its face, it sounds like a good deal. After all, who doesn’t want lower drug prices?

But there’s a big catch. Proponents of H.R. 3 are not discussing the fact that attempting to lower prices through this scheme will come at a very high cost to Americans seeking access to new and innovative treatments and cures. Indeed, we need only look at the lack of access to medications and the dearth of medical innovation investment in these H.R. 3-referenced countries to see the harm the legislation will bring to U.S. patients, especially those living in hope that one day research breakthroughs will bring treatments that provide them full and lasting relief.

In the countries with government-mandated price controls that H.R. 3 seeks to mimic, patients don’t receive the same level of access to treatments as U.S. patients do. While upward of 90% of the new medicines launched from 2011 to 2018 are available in the U.S., only 36% are available in Australia, 50% in France and 59% in the U.K. And cancer patients in those countries must endure an 18-month wait, on average, for cancer medications already available to U.S. patients.

We’ve seen how significant investment, coupled with brilliant minds, can improve the lives of those who suffer from chronic conditions. For example, a little over five years ago, after decades of research, a cure for hepatitis C became available, saving the lives of millions of patients who previously had little hope of surviving the liver damage wrought by the deadly disease. No longer do hepatitis C patients have to endure the devastation this virus can cause, including liver failure, cirrhosis and cancer. The development of these treatments over the past few decades just goes to show how much our innovation pipeline has benefited thousands American patients and others worldwide.

H.R. 3 may lower some drug prices, but what it will also do is lower the expectation that innovative new treatments are on the horizon. Lower costs on some drugs at the expense of access to many others is not health care reform and will harm countless patients. Our lives and the lives of our children depend on these advancements. Congress must reject the disastrous H.R. 3 to ensure that patients are not left waiting in vain for the medications and treatments they need and deserve.

Bill Remak is president and chairman of the California Hepatitis C Task Force. He lives in Petaluma.

Read more on The Press Democrat