The bill Pharma wants to bottle up

In 2015, spending on prescription medication spiked 12 percent, to a national total of some $425 billion.
In 2015, spending on prescription medication spiked 12 percent, to a national total of some $425 billion. Fotolia

Few pocketbook issues are as widespread or as hard to fathom as the soaring cost of prescription drugs. In the past five years, prices for the nation’s 10 top selling medications – for high cholesterol, arthritis, diabetes, depression and other common conditions – have shot up 50 percent, 100 percent and even higher. In the last year alone, spending on prescription medication is up 12 percent, to a national total of some $425 billion.

Why? Are we sicker? Are drug ingredients scarcer? Are we all just being ripped off?

Enter Senate Bill 1010, up Thursday in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. A sunshine bill, it doesn’t set prices or raise taxes; it just demands a few fundamental, and extremely relevant, facts.

SB 1010 would require drugmakers to give some justification and notice before they raise the price of big-ticket drugs in the market. It also would require insurers and health plans to identify the top drugs driving health care spending.

Basic stuff, and desperately needed. That’s why doctors, patients, businesses, unions, insurance companies, consumer advocates and governments back SB 1010.

Even conservative estimates lay at least 10 percent of the blame for rising health care costs on prescription medication. Spikes in the price of hepatitis drugs alone are costing Californians hundreds of millions of dollars, because so much of the drug’s market is in state prisons or on Medi-Cal. Also, other health care players must be transparent, from hospitals to insurance plans.

Unfortunately the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want this sunlight. At last count, some 33 drug companies, biotech firms and industry trade organizations had lobbyists roaming the Capitol hallways, battling West Covina Democratic Sen. Ed Hernandez’s bill.

The reasons proffered are familiar: Any change in the status quo, even better data, will supposedly hurt innovation, or worsen costs, or jeopardize trade secrets or create paperwork or just not work as planned.

What’s really going on is that for the past couple of years, in the absence of federal legislation, those being soaked by rising drug costs have begun seeking state action. Bills have been introduced in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Colorado and elsewhere requiring varying degrees of transparency.

So far, only one state – Vermont – has managed to get a law past the Pharma lobby, and it’s weak. SB 1010 would be much harder to game if it passes. Let’s hope it does and becomes the national template the industry is so afraid of. Californians deserve an explanation if medication is going to cost this much.