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State lawmakers must stop drug pricing from going through the roof.

Published on 2/19/2016
Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell was frightfully right on Sunday ($750 pills? That's free market, capitalism.), pointing out that when "infamous pharma bro" Martin Shkreli raised the price of a lifesaving drug 5,000 percent, he was not the lone villain. Instead he was the product of the unregulated prescription-drug market.

The 5,000 percent increase and Shkreli's smirk may shock some of us, but drug prices keep rising faster than other health-care costs. Double-digit increases over the past three years have made prescriptions a huge reason for the high cost of health care.

Why do drug companies charge so much? Because they can.

Drug companies use their excessive profits from outrageous prices to fund politicians' campaigns, not good for you and me. Drug companies enjoy a sweet business arrangement: The federal law that created Medicare Part D in 2003 — the part that pays for medications for seniors — forbids the government from negotiating drug prices. The government is the largest single purchaser of medical care and drugs. With negotiation removed from the pricing, pharmaceutical companies can charge pretty much whatever they want. Already in the U.S. we pay 600 times more for some cancer drugs than other nations pay.

Drug manufacturers have been pushing legislators in other states to enact a cap on prescription copays. Florida may be next. You might think limits on copays would be great. That could mean lower costs for you and me at the pharmacy counter, but we all pay for it in the ever-rising cost of health care and in our insurance premiums.

Florida law currently limits copays at 10 percent of the drug cost, but that still leaves us sensitive to the cost of the drug — we feel the bite of gouging prices. If our legislators OK a dollar amount for the copay cap, we won't feel the obscene prices. It isn't free market if consumers do not feel the price and do not have another option. It is a lopsided market, and we are the losers.

Don't let our legislators favor the drug companies. For a sustainable health-care system, we need to rein in the cost. Transparency and consumer price awareness can level the playing field for those companies that do set prices responsibly.

A recent Kaiser poll found that high drug prices now rank as the top health-care concern among all voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. We need federal and state legislators, from both parties, to hold drug companies accountable, not just focus on the extreme cases.

We must stop caps on copays, call for transparency in pricing, and curb drug costs. Tell your legislators to rein in drug costs; our fiscal and health-system sustainability demand it.

Nancy Rudner is a registered nurse and League of Women Voters of Florida health-care policy analyst. Julie Kessel is a physician medical executive and president of the League of Women Voters of the Saint Petersburg Area.