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OP-ED: We can stop being the world's suckers on drug prices
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There’s a drug war on TV. It has nothing to do with cocaine or heroin but does involve an addiction – the pharmaceutical industry’s compulsion to charge Americans an average 3.4 times more for brand-name drugs than people in other countries pay. Step 1 in the rehab program is to let Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices.

The drug makers, represented by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, the main industry lobbying group, are running scare ads where seniors fret that they’d be denied lifesaving drugs if Congress applies brakes on what they can charge Medicare. In opposition, the leading interest group for older Americans is sponsoring ads in support of price negotiations. The AARP insists its elderly members would still get the drugs they need, pay lower premiums and get new benefits.

The AARP is right. Most Democrats agree, and so did Donald Trump when he first ran for president.

“We are not allowed to negotiate drug prices. Can you believe it?” candidate Trump said in 2016. “We pay about $300 billion more than we are supposed to, than if we negotiated the price. So there’s $300 billion on Day One we solve.”

Upon getting elected, Trump made a top drug-company executive head of Health and Human Services, and the campaign promise vanished. But we can now update his figure on savings to at least $450 billion over 10 years, based on Congressional Budget Office numbers.

Most of those savings wouldn’t leave the Medicare program but, as the budget plan says, go to providing dental, hearing and vision coverage. And beneficiaries would enjoy a $14 billion cut in their Part D premiums by 2029, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Then there are the taxpayers. General revenues – that is, federal income taxes – cover 71% of the costs of Medicare Part D, and states another 12%.

This proposal hardly starves the pharmaceutical companies of revenues. It would cap the prices charged Medicare at 120% of those paid in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. In other words, we could still be paying more than these other rich countries. The difference is that drug makers could no longer gouge Americans with impunity.

The proposed Medicare cap would have reduced U.S. spending on insulins and 50 top brand-name drugs by 52% during 2020 – a savings of $83.5 billion, according to a RAND Corporation report. (The Veterans Administration has long negotiated prices and pays 54% less for drugs than does Medicare.)

PhRMA’s public relations department recently wrote that efforts to stop drug makers from charging the federal health insurance program for the elderly whatever they want “should enrage every senior who relies on Medicare for their life-saving medicines.”

Actually, they’re not enraged. An AARP survey finds that 87% of Americans 50 and older support letting Medicare negotiate drug prices. And nearly 90% of the general public wants it, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

One PhRMA ad falsely claims that politicians will “decide which medicines you can and can’t get.” The budget bill does no such thing. It would not require a prescription drug formulary. Insurers offering Medicare drug plans would still decide what drugs to cover. The negotiations would apply to only a few drugs that account for the highest spending and that lack generic competitors.

Lawmakers intent on protecting the drug-pricing racket include some Democrats. What most have in common with like-minded Republicans is open palms at the bottom of Big Pharma’s money chute.

At some point, Americans will stop playing the world’s suckers. Letting Medicare negotiate drug prices would be a fine place to start recovering our self-respect.

Froma Harrop is a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

LETTER: LWV issues election reminders

As president of the League of Women Voters of Washington County, I'd like to remind readers of a few key updates and dates regarding the upcoming election.

The deadline to register to vote for the Nov. 2 election is Oct. 18, and the last day to apply for a mail-in or civilian absentee ballot is Oct. 26. New voting procedures and information on the use of voting machines can be reviewed on a video on the Washington County website: co.washington.pa.us/129/elections/, or by calling the Board of Elections for Washington County at 724-228-6750.

The league also would like to alert voters to an important issue on the ballot. Voters will be asked to vote for or against the creation of a Government Study Commission and on the same ballot, vote for members of the commission. If the vote to establish the commission is defeated, the members elected will not serve.

The Government Study Commission would be charged with studying the current form of county government and comparing it with other available forms under the laws of the commonwealth. The study commission would determine whether in its judgment the government could be strengthened or made more clearly responsible or accountable to the people, or whether its operation could become more economical or efficient under a changed form of government.

The League of Women Voters encourages local residents to register and get out to vote on Nov. 2.

Phyllis Waller

President, League of Women Voters, Washington County

OP-ED: Time to rethink how we use animals to test pharmaceuticals

WASHINGTON – Every now and then, a sliver of sanity seeps through the barricade of national lunacy.

This past week, a handful of bipartisan lawmakers introduced two bills aimed at ending one of our nation’s most-barbaric practices – mandatory animal testing of new pharmaceuticals destined for human trials.

It’s been a while since I’ve performed a midair, double-heeled click, but I managed a reasonable facsimile upon hearing this news. The Senate’s “FDA Modernization Act” and the House’s H.R. 2565 set the stage for a groundbreaking move to end animal suffering while also advancing timelier and more efficient drug development.

In part, the measures result from lessons learned during development of the coronavirus vaccine: We don’t need to wait so long to develop human therapies if we bypass some of the archaic demands of outdated laws, in particular, a 1930’s-era law that required animal testing before human trials. When the pandemic demanded swift action on a vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration worked with government officials and pharmaceutical companies to create lifesaving drugs in record time. This happened because Moderna and Pfizer were allowed to run animal testing and early trials on humans at the same time, rather than completing separate animal trials first.

The best reason to stop using animals in drug tests is the fact that animals don’t respond to drugs the same way people do. (If they did, we might as well all go to veterinarians for our shots.) Although the use of animals in science and medicine has benefited human beings, there’s significant evidence that “human subjects have been harmed in the clinical testing of drugs that were deemed safe by animal studies,” as Gail A. Van Norman wrote in the journal JACC: Basic to Translational Science.

Alarmingly, adverse drug reactions are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease. It does not sound to me like using animals – normally mice and monkeys – is worth the price in cruelty we pay for our health.

Besides, other ways of conducting research are available and already in use. The first is a technique that performs a procedure in a controlled environment outside of a living organism, which sounds a lot better than the alternative. Such tests are already in use and typically involve tests or experiments performed on computers or via computer simulation. This method also is being used in studies that predict how drugs interact with the body and with pathogens.

Nevertheless, drug companies and the scientific community likely will fight this initiative, just as they have in past years, if only because they don’t want to change how they do business. Several important animal rights victories, including President Trump’s ban on using dogs in experiments, has some firms and many scientists worried about the future of such research.

Cultural trends also seem to suggest that public opinion is shifting on animal research. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that a slight majority of Americans (52%) oppose animal testing. But it is not without exceptions: When asked about genetic engineering of animals, the numbers shift toward the survival of our species over others. Only 21% think that engineering aquarium fish to glow is an appropriate use of technology, for example, while 57% approve of using animals to grow organs and tissue for humans in need of a transplant.

Though there didn’t seem to be any significant partisan alignments, there was evidence that support for animal testing rises with education. Americans with postgraduate degrees support animal experimentation to a greater degree because, theoretically, they’ve likely had greater exposure to science. The less educated more often oppose animal experimentation.

Still, some in the scientific community are getting worried about the future of animal research. Ken Gordon, executive director of a Seattle biomedical research firm, has tracked U.S. attitudes toward animal research using 17 years of Gallup polls. Extrapolating, he predicts that the portion of the public that finds animal testing “morally wrong” will exceed the portion that finds it “morally acceptable” within the next two to three years.

When that happens, he said, “funding will dry up, and our work will get a lot more difficult.”

That’s probably an overstatement. I’d like to think that science and humane research can coexist. Much of what we do in research today is because of how we’ve always done it – ever since the 4th century B.C. when Aristotle was performing animal experiments to learn about anatomy. Several millennia later is time enough to liberate our animal hostages along with our better angels – and put technology to its highest and best uses. Besides, given what we know, it just makes sense.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.