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OPINION

Prescription prices should be addressed at BIO International Convention

Especially with big pharma raising prices on nearly 1,000 drugs in just the first month of 2023.

A recent survey found an overwhelming majority of voters polled support policies to hold big pharma accountable to lower drug prices.Mark Zaleski

This week more than 14,000 business leaders in the life sciences are in Boston for the BIO International Convention — executives, marketers, and researchers representing companies ranging from biotech startups to big pharma giants.

As a former board member of MassBio, the Massachusetts chapter of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, I’ve been part of the planning for past BIO International Conventions. And, as a former executive of three Boston-based life sciences companies, I’ve attended many.

Today I work in a separate part of the prescription drug supply chain, as a leader at the trade association for America’s pharmacy benefit companies. Pharmacy benefit companies are hired by health plan sponsors, like employers, to secure savings on prescription drugs, most often by negotiating savings from drug companies.

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It was with this purview that I perused the speaker list and session topics for this year’s conference at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. Surely there would be a conversation about the elephant in the room: The fact that, for far too many Americans, the innovations drug companies create are out of reach due to cost. Aside from two sessions dedicated to the impact of Congress’s recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act on innovation, not one session at the largest pharma event of the year addresses how to tackle the prescription drug affordability crisis that policy makers in Washington, D.C., are seeking to solve.

With drug companies raising the prices of more than 1,000 drugs in just the first month of 2023, it’s no wonder a recent survey by Morning Consult found that “a quarter of voters report that they and/or a family member have had financial difficulty affording a prescribed medication.” The survey also found an overwhelming majority of voters polled support policies to hold big pharma accountable to lower drug prices.

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Yet despite the clear demand to address prescription affordability, it seems there are a hundred other topics to discuss as a pharmaceutical and biotech sector at this year’s meeting of the minds.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, as policy makers agonize over how to tackle out-of-control drug costs, there has been a concerted effort to distract lawmakers from real solutions that address the fundamental causes of high drug prices — and focus instead on misguided proposals that buy into what feels like a highly orchestrated and well-funded smoke-and-mirrors, shift-the-blame scheme. At the core of the affordability problems in the United States are the prices big drug companies decide to charge for their products — and the egregious patent abuse tactics many of these companies utilize to undermine more affordable options.

To avoid legislation that would rein in high prices and patent abuse, big pharma is shifting blame to pharmacy benefit companies whose primary role is to lower drug costs. And the legislation big pharma is pushing for under the guise of “drug pricing legislation” lets drug companies off the hook and would mean increased costs for patients.

Now imagine a convention where all of the stakeholders in the life sciences talked about ways to step up and make drugs more affordable for patients and their families — even for just one panel discussion. I’d share what pharmacy benefit companies are doing to advance a more affordable and sustainable future, how they’re evolving business models to tangibly address concerns raised around transparency, and how the pharmacy benefit industry has unified in support of policies that create cost-lowering competition in the prescription drug marketplace — opposing only those policies that drive costs up for patients and taxpayers or take away employers’ ability to choose how to design and pay for their employees’ pharmacy benefits. I’d also want to hear more about the laudable decision several drug companies recently took to lower list prices on a variety of insulin products — and ask more companies for similar pricing discretion across other therapeutic areas.

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All companies that have an impact on drug pricing, including drug companies that set the initial price of drugs and profit more when prices are higher, should come to the table with what they’re doing to ensure Americans aren’t skipping doses because they need to decide between groceries and medication.

Maybe next year.

Katie Payne is senior vice president of strategic communications at the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association.