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Senate leaders to offer antidote for high drug costs

Senator Cindy Friedman, cochairwoman of the Legislature’s Committee on Health Care Financing, said the plan would build on previous policy by directing the Health Policy Commission to identify drug prices that “pose a public health threat” and allowing the commission to recommend more affordable prices. Scott Eisen for The Boston Globe

Massachusetts Senate leaders on Thursday will propose new legislation they say targets the high cost of prescription drugs, giving state officials the power to study and propose what they consider fair values for expensive medicines.

The bill — the Senate’s first major foray into a broader debate on Beacon Hill over health care — also would cap out-of-pocket costs for insulin, the lifesaving drug used by many patients with diabetes.

Patients who now may be paying thousands of dollars annually for insulin would pay no more than $25 per month for the drug under the Senate plan, said Senator Cindy F. Friedman, cochairwoman of the Legislature’s Committee on Health Care Financing.


The bill also requires drug companies and pharmacy benefit managers — which manage drug benefits for health plans — to submit detailed drug cost information to the state.

Prescription drug costs have become a hot-button issue nationally as patients continue to feel rising costs in the form of copays and deductibles. Drug costs are a subject of debate in Washington, and dozens of states, including Massachusetts, have approved new policies to address pharmaceutical spending.

“It is the number one piece of health care that we hear about,” Friedman told the Globe Wednesday. “Pharmaceutical costs and increases is what we hear about over and over again. . . . The sense of urgency is palpable.”

The bill, which senators said they will make public Thursday, comes about three weeks after Governor Charlie Baker unveiled a sweeping 179-page health care plan that tackles drug prices along with a host of other issues. Baker proposed penalizing drug companies that raise prices more than 2 percent a year on top of inflation.

Baker also introduced a plan earlier this year to contain drug costs in the state Medicaid program by giving administration officials more power to negotiate prices, and subjecting certain companies to more oversight by the state Health Policy Commission. Legislators approved a modified version of his plan in July.


Administration officials said they have already saved $6 million through negotiations with three companies for six drugs — and they’ve reached out to more companies to begin negotiations on 80 additional drugs.

Friedman said the Senate plan would build on that policy by directing the Health Policy Commission to identify drug prices that “pose a public health threat” and allowing the commission to recommend more affordable prices.

“We can’t keep it quiet,” Friedman said of the public process around drug pricing. “We have to be more transparent. We need the pressure of the system to lower those costs for consumers.”

Following similar efforts in Colorado and Minnesota, the Senate bill also targets the costs of insulin, a commonly used drug that has become increasingly unaffordable for many patients.

On average, the price of all types of insulin roughly doubled between 2012 and 2016, according to the Washington-based Health Care Cost Institute.

Bonny Gilbert, a board member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which has been pushing for legislation to reduce health care costs, said she appreciates the Senate’s new effort but wants to see lawmakers go further than “shaming” drug makers through public price oversight.

“We are not convinced that public shaming is really going to bring costs down for patients,” she said. “Without being forced to make a little bit less, [drug companies] will be driven to find ways to increase profits.”


Amy Rosenthal, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Health Care for All, said the Senate’s approach to drug pricing appears be “comprehensive,” Most impactful, she said, is the authority it would grant the Health Policy Commission to set proposed drug values.

“Massachusetts has been a health care leader for so long,” she said. “And the reason this has worked for us, everybody kind of does their fair share. . . . We think it’s time that pharma does the same.”

Representatives for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a national lobbying group, said Wednesday that they couldn’t comment on the new Senate bill before reading it in its entirety.

Officials at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council were also awaiting the details of the proposal. The group’s president, Robert K. Coughlin, said in a statement that he hopes initiatives to reduce patient costs for drugs avoid policies “that seek to punish innovative companies bringing breakthrough treatments and cures to market.”

The Senate’s decision to seek changes in drug pricing through a standalone bill — with the likelihood of others to follow — could complicate the health care debate on Beacon Hill.

The governor is trying to address a variety of issues in a single bill, and House leaders have indicated they also intend to pursue an omnibus package.

Friedman said the Senate hasn’t ruled out a larger piece of legislation later next year. But given the complexity of the health care marketplace, she said senators are interested in targeting different issues in “pieces.”


“Each one of these issues is sort of a PhD in of itself,” she said.

Representative Jennifer E. Benson, the House chair of the Committee on Health Care Financing, said she has yet to see the Senate drug pricing bill. But she confirmed that chamber is more interested in doing a “larger bill.”

“I think everyone is dedicated to getting something done this session,” she said, with drug pricing included. “I think we’re all prioritizing that as one of the big issues.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com