Sen. Alexander optimistic about bipartisan efforts to lower drug costs

Brandon Paykamian • Jul 13, 2019 at 12:42 AM

U.S. Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said Wednesday that “instead of remaining stuck in a perpetual partisan argument over Obamacare and health insurance,” legislators are now working across party lines to lower out-of-pocket health care costs. 

The Tennessee senator said reducing prescription drug costs for Americans is an issue he believes legislators and the administration of President Donald Trump can find bipartisan common ground on. After the Lower Health Care Costs Act passed 20-3 last week in the Health Committee, Alexander addressed the Senate Wednesday to further promote the bill, which includes provisions to “increase prescription drug competition to help more lower-cost generic and biosimilar drugs reach patients.” 

“The question I hear most often is, ‘How can I reduce what Americans pay for health care out of their own pockets?’ And the most obvious out-of-pocket cost for most Americans is what we pay for prescription drugs. Shirley, from Franklin, Tennessee, is one of those Americans. She wrote to me recently saying: ‘As a 71-year-old senior with arthritis, I rely on Enbrel to keep my symptoms in check. My copay has just been increased from $95 to $170 every 90 days. At this rate, I will have to begin limiting my usage in order to balance the monthly budget,’” Alexander said in a speech delivered Wednesday on the Senate floor.

Alexander said he and committee ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, “have been working in parallel” with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, of the Senate Finance Committee, who are also working on their own bipartisan bill tackling prescription costs and surprise medical billing. 

Other legislative committees, like the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, and Judiciary Committees, have legislation in the works Alexander said aims to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

ObGyn practitioner and ETSU professor Marty Olsen, an independent who ran as the 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate in 2018, said he’s “very supportive” of the Lower Health Care Costs Act.

“When people see something that’s solvable, pulling together and working together to solve it just makes logical sense,” he said. “I think that’s one of the most easily controllable areas of our ever-expanding health care expenses.”

When talking to other physicians, Olsen said he’s noticed similar sentiments, too. “There’s really no reason” for insulin costs to be “10 times higher in the U.S.” than in Canada, according to Olsen. 

“I think that the physicians I’ve talked to all recognize and agree that pharmaceutical costs are too high in many cases,” he said, adding that he’s noticed patients who had to make tough financial decisions to pay for prescriptions. 

Last week, the Protecting People From Surprise Medical Bills Act — cosponsored by Reps. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, Raul Ruiz, D-California, and six other representatives — was also introduced in the House on the same day the Lower Health Care Costs Act went through the Senate Health Committee. This legislation, however, mainly focuses solely on tackling surprise billing. 

Olsen said it’s refreshing to see co-operation between legislators who often contentiously battle over other health care topics, as well as immigration, foreign policy and labor issues. 

“We’re more polarized than we’ve been in a long time,” he said. “And I think it’s good leadership when people come together and say, ‘OK, what can we agree on?’

“You can make a list of 100 things they disagree on, but if you can make a list of five things you agree on and make progress in those five areas, I personally see that as a good thing.”