Star Tribune

By Amy Klobuchar

The cost of prescription drugs is simply too high. What good are treatments and cures if they go unused because they are unaffordable to patients? For far too many Americans, high drug prices can force difficult choices like whether to ration meds or food or not pay the electric bill during a hot summer like this one. This is true even for seniors covered by Medicare.

Stories of families making these hard choices can be found across Minnesota. One 71-year-old Medicare beneficiary from Oak Grove relies on the prescription drug Jardiance to control a heart issue. Last year the drug cost her about $530 for a 90-day supply — roughly a sixth of her take-home pay from her job at a senior care residence. Another Minnesotan — a 67-year-old Medicare beneficiary from Glenville — paid roughly $750 for a 90-day supply of Jardiance and Januvia and stopped taking the drugs altogether due to the high cost. That just shouldn't happen in the United States of America.

Medicare is the biggest payer of prescription drugs in the country. If our free market system was working the way it's supposed to, that would give Medicare some serious bargaining power. But up until last year, a provision in federal law written by the big multinational drug companies prevented Medicare from getting better prices for seniors and taxpayers.

I have always thought that was wrong and for years led the bill to fix this — the Empowering Medicare Seniors to Negotiate Drug Prices Act. Finally, in 2022, I got provisions from my legislation signed into law. As a result, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is set to release a list of 10 drugs currently costing Medicare and taxpayers a fortune that will be subject to negotiated prices beginning in 2026. CMS will negotiate the price of additional prescription drugs every year.

The new law also includes other provisions to lower consumer health costs, such as putting a $35 cap on the monthly price seniors pay for insulin and eliminating out-of-pocket costs for seniors on recommended vaccines, like the shingles shot. Because of this law, Minnesota seniors are on track to save an average of about $100 a year on vaccines. The law also caps out-of-pocket spending for Medicare beneficiaries with Part D drug coverage at $2,000 per year starting in 2025. Once this cap takes effect, it is projected to save 234,000 Minnesota seniors an average of $480 per year.

But there is so much more to be done. I am still fighting to pass my new legislation to double the number of drugs that Medicare can negotiate the price of each year. The insulin cap should apply to everyone. And I lead another bill with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley to stop some of Big Pharma's most predatory conduct, like keeping affordable generics off the market. That provision passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, and I'm working to get it to the floor of the Senate for a full vote.

With the upcoming announcement of the first 10 "blockbuster" drugs subject to actual negotiated prices, it's worth remembering the obstacles Congress overcame to get it passed. Last year, Big Pharma had three lobbyists for every one of my colleagues in the U.S. House and Senate. They were in every marbled hallway and at every cocktail party in Washington. In total, Big Pharma spent an eye-popping $372 million lobbying Congress last year. Despite all that we finally took them on and got results for the American people.

What drug companies couldn't accomplish in Washington, they are now spending millions more trying to achieve in court. Multiple lawsuits have been filed to stop the negotiations by companies like Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Bristol Myers Squibb and Astellas Pharma as well as the industry trade group PhRMA. In the year ahead, I expect to see a lot of bad-faith, breathless warnings from pharmaceutical companies about how they can't keep the lights on without price-gouging American seniors. Yet these drug manufacturers will issue these warnings while they pump millions and millions of dollars into lawsuits and lobbyists trying to delay the inevitable.

The era of Big Pharma calling the shots and endlessly driving up prescription prices is coming to an end. Americans should be able to afford routine medications that currently cost significantly less in other countries. We are finally making progress and the one way to respond to the Pharma lawsuits and the lobbying is simple: Never give up. Thanks to Minnesota seniors, AARP and so many calls, letters and texts, we will triumph.