Editorials

If California doesn’t stand up to drug companies, who will?

The dome of the Capitol glows in the early evening in Sacramento, Calif.
The dome of the Capitol glows in the early evening in Sacramento, Calif. AP

As the California Legislature winds to a close for the year, there are still a handful of opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of working families. Chief among them is Senate Bill 17 – the second attempt in as many years to bring some measure of sanity to the insanely high cost of prescription drugs.

In 2016 alone, Americans shelled out upward of $450 billion on medications to treat conditions ranging from high cholesterol to diabetes to depression. Assuming no major shift in public policy, we’ll be spending as much as $610 billion by 2021.

That’s an astronomical figure that should only serve to call more attention to the way drug companies raise prices by 100 percent or even 200 percent. And we’re not just talking about proud offenders such as Martin Shkreli, either.

SB 17, from Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa, wouldn’t crack down on those price hikes directly. Instead it would shine a light on the entire industry, employing a bit of public shaming by forcing companies to notify the state and private insurers before changing the price of a drug substantially.

The requirements of SB 17 are reasonable, even though Big Pharma complains that the legislation would stifle innovation by mandating companies report sensitive information on the cost of drug development.

We’d be more inclined to listen to the industry’s argument if it had a better explanation for why drug prices keep climbing, sucking consumers dry and driving up overall health costs. Or if the industry had taken a stand for consumers when Republicans in Congress cruelly wanted to gut Obamacare.

Unfortunately, legislative action is the only way to begin protecting the proverbial little guy from the whims of big business. It’s telling that unions back the bill, including the California Labor Federation and UNITE HERE.

Along those same lines is Senate Bill 306, which would ramp up protections for whistleblowers who report workplace violations of state law.

Currently, employees who are fired or demoted in retaliation for speaking up can complain to the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, but must wait for the results of an investigation before being reinstated with back wages. That can take years, though, and can serve as a deterrent for any would-be whistleblower who needs a steady paycheck.

SB 306, by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and backed by the California Labor Federation, SEIU, AFL-CIO and others, would speed up the process. Plus, employees would be allowed to keep their jobs – and paychecks – while retaliation cases are being investigated. The benefit to Californians is clear.

It is impossible, however, to see what good Assembly Bill 1250 would do for anyone but the leaders of organized labor.

The legislation, carried by Assemblyman Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, would put new restrictions on nonprofits that work with counties. For any contract job that is “customarily performed by county employees,” such as tutoring students or cleaning bathrooms, the nonprofit would have to spend precious time and money documenting why its services and its employees are more effective.

The goal, Jones-Sawyer has said, is to protect the jobs of public employees (who would become union members) from being taken over by contractors. But the reality is more likely to be cash-strapped nonprofits going under, depriving families of services, which is why many nonprofits in the state are against AB 1250.

This isn’t the role that organized labor should play in California, backing small-bore bills that won’t help working people. The Legislature should pass on AB 1250, but send SB 306 and SB 17 to the governor’s desk.

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