Editorials

When a flawed remedy to drug prices looks better than none at all

SB 1010 would have discouraged drugmakers from raising the price of medications like the antibiotic doxycycline hyclate, one of several that has risen significantly in price.
SB 1010 would have discouraged drugmakers from raising the price of medications like the antibiotic doxycycline hyclate, one of several that has risen significantly in price. AP

Flush from its triumphant gutting of a bill to impose even a modicum of transparency on drugmakers in California, the pharmaceutical industry last week cranked up the volume against a ballot initiative aimed at lowering the price of prescription drugs.

“Proposition 61 is opposed by a broad coalition of more than 130 organizations,” read the dispatch, citing “bureaucratic hurdles” and other problems with the measure that would prohibit the state from paying more for drugs than the federal Department of Veterans Affairs does. For good measure, they added that one of the initiative’s backers is “controversial.”

Proposition 61, which will come before voters in November, does indeed have its flaws, like most ballot-box policymaking. And its author, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Michael Weinstein, is a litigious and perennial provocateur.

But the initiative has its own “broad coalition” of people who are sick of paying extortionate prices for prescription medication, ranging from the AARP to the California Nurses Association. And last week’s pharmaceutical power play in the Legislature only made that coalition broader. If Pharma wants to cement its place as the next Big Tobacco in the minds of California voters, the industry should just keep it up.

The fate of Senate Bill 1010, carried by Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, was only the latest example of the industry’s raw power. A sunshine bill, it didn’t cap prices or raise drugmakers’ taxes. It required insurance and health plans to identify the drugs that were costing them the most money. And it required drug companies to give a month’s notice to the state if they were going to raise the wholesale price of a drug by more than 10 percent and justify the hike.

Amid a lobbying blitz that was breathtaking by even California standards, drug companies from Allergan to Vertex descended to bury SB 1010, which made just enough sense to become a national model.

The bill’s backers included businesses, health plans, patients and unions. But, having progressed through the Senate, it hit a buzz saw in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

There, amid a lobbying blitz that was breathtaking by even California standards, 33 trade groups and drug companies from Allergan to Vertex descended to bury SB 1010, which made just enough sense to become a national model.

By the end of the day Thursday, Appropriations Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez, a labor Democrat from the biotech hotbed of San Diego, had stunned her usual union allies with a series of amendments that rendered the bill worse than useless. When it emerged, SB 1010 was a four-year experiment that would start late and sunset early, and allow drug companies to jack up prices in secret by as much as 24.9 percent.

This kind of scorched earth has been the national pattern. Though numerous states have tried, only one – Vermont – has been able to pass even a transparency measure, and that law is weak. SB 1010 would have served the public; Pharma could have scored valuable goodwill, cheaply, by submitting to it.

Now, barring some last-minute deal, that initiative is no doubt looking much more attractive to voters – who, come November, may decide a flawed remedy with controversial backers is their only shot at relief.

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