Pressure grows on Mass. legislators to rein in high drug prices

Bills before the Legislature would involve the state in determining if drug prices are fair and reasonable.
Bills before the Legislature would involve the state in determining if drug prices are fair and reasonable.Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post via Associated Press/File 2018/The Denver Post via AP

Consumer advocates on Tuesday pushed for legislation that would allow Massachusetts to set limits on the prices of certain expensive drugs, ramping up pressure on Beacon Hill to take action to tackle rising drug costs.

The bill, supported by Health Care For All and the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, or MassPIRG, would require pharmaceutical companies to disclose more information about their costs, including marketing expenses, so that state officials can determine if their drug prices are fair and reasonable.

It would allow the state’s Health Policy Commission, after a review, to set an upper payment limit for drugs with prices the commission considers unreasonable.


“We know that prescription drugs are critical to curing diseases and maintaining one’s health . . . but at the same time we know that too many people can’t afford the price of prescription drugs that they need,” Amy Rosenthal, executive director of Health Care For All, a consumer advocacy group, said at a State House press conference.

“The bottom line is prescription drugs don’t work if people can’t take them,” she added.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Jason Lewis of Winchester and Representative Christine Barber of Somerville, both Democrats, drew a rebuke from the pharmaceutical industry.

“We have concerns about any proposal that would implement price controls, because we believe that that could impact patient access in a negative way,” said Tiffany Haverly, spokeswoman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

The trade group, known as PhRMA, also had a heavy presence at the State House on Tuesday, bringing more than 50 Massachusetts-based scientists to discuss their work.

It’s unclear if or when the drug-pricing bill will advance. It is one of thousands of bills before the Legislature and one of several proposals involving drug costs.

But as new medicines, some with six-figure price tags, continue to hit the market, momentum for legislative action to rein in prices appears to be building among members of the House and Senate, as well as Governor Charlie Baker.


In his annual budget plan, announced in January, Baker proposed controlling costs in the state Medicaid program, or MassHealth, by negotiating prices directly with drug makers and subjecting some drugs to more oversight by the Health Policy Commission, a state agency that studies costs.

The agency could require drug makers to justify their prices in documents and at public hearings, according to Baker’s plan. If it determines a drug price to be unreasonable or excessive, the commission could refer the manufacturer to the attorney general’s office for further investigation.

Brendan Moss, a spokesman for the governor, said Baker will carefully review any additional legislation about drug spending that reaches his desk.

Sarah Blodgett, a spokeswoman for Senate President Karen E. Spilka, said Spilka will review all legislative proposals to address drug prices.

“Tackling prescription drug costs has long been a priority for the Senate,” she said.

Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, said drug costs will “be a focus of the ongoing House legislative effort this session.”

While specialty drugs tend to be the most expensive, patients also struggle to afford common drugs, noted Deirdre Cummings, MassPIRG’s legislative director. The group released a report Tuesday that showed wide variation in the prices of drugs to treat conditions such as high cholesterol, asthma, and acid reflux.


For patients who pick up prescriptions at pharmacies, the median price of the drugs surveyed varied an average of 892 percent from the cheapest price, according to MassPIRG.

“Patients can’t afford this for their health, or their finances,’’ Cummings said.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey @globe.com.