The skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs — already a hot issue on the U.S. presidential campaign trail — may be headed to California’s statewide ballot next fall.
Advocates of a proposed measure that would require state programs to pay no more for prescription drugs than prices negotiated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said they had turned in 542,879 signatures by Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline, well beyond the 365,880 required by the state.
“It’s still subject to verification by the Secretary of State, but we have done quite a few other initiatives and we believe the large margin of additional signatures will be more than enough,” said Michael Weinstein, co-founder and president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which authored the initiative.
Called the “California Drug Price Relief Act,” the measure would apply to any program where the state ultimately pays for a drug, even if the state does not purchase the drug directly.
“Our primary purpose here is to strengthen the hand of government in negotiating prices, and make clear the public ire over the cost of drugs and the lack of transparency, and that profit is an issue that has to be dealt with,” said Weinstein, who characterized the challenge as a “David vs. Goliath battle.”
In fact, the multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry already has contributed $10 million to fight the measure, whose signatures the Secretary of State will tally by late next week.
And Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the campaign against the initiative, said while the ballot measure may look simple, “the changes being proposed will have adverse consequences for Californians,” including higher prescription drug prices for other consumers.
How many people the ballot measure would affect isn’t precisely known. Neither is its fiscal impact — at this point, both the state Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Department of Finance can only say that if adopted by voters, it “may result in a substantial net change in state or local finances.”
Weinstein’s group, however, maintains it would help at least 5 million Californians, including 2.7 million non-HMO members of Medi-Cal, the government’s health care program for the poor and disabled.
Other populations that would benefit include 2.2 million members combined from CalPERS and CalSTRS, the state public employees’ and public teachers’ pension systems respectively, say advocates. The initiative would also help 112,000 state inmates and 31,000 Californians who receive AIDS drugs from a government assistance program, contends the group.
The growing controversy over astronomical drug prices over the last few years has been spurred in part by at least one Bay Area biotech firm, Foster City-based Gilead Sciences. Its drug Sovaldi cures Hepatitis C, but is priced at about $84,000 for a 12-week course of treatment.
More recent headlines have focused on outrage over a drug from Turing Pharmaceuticals called Daraprim, which treats toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can affect those living with HIV/AIDS and cancer. In September, the firm, which has offices in New York and Switzerland, announced it would hike the price of a single tablet from $18 to $750, leading to criticism from Democrat presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as well as concerns in general over drug companies’ “pure profiteering” from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Americans are paying attention. In a poll released last week by the Menlo Park-based Kaiser Family Foundation, affordability of high-cost drugs for people with chronic conditions, such as HIV, hepatitis, mental illness and cancer, is a top priority for 77 percent of the public and more than 7 in 10 across party lines. And at least half of Democrats, Republicans and independents say government action to lower prescription drug prices also should be a top priority.
“This is the type of issue that should have been dealt with by the legislature,” said Weinstein. “By putting a very simple, straightforward message on the ballot that Californians should not pay more than the VA is just a very clear cut choice that we believe people will make in our favor.”
In fact, early this year Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange marketplace established under the Affordable Care Act, became the first in the nation to apply a cap for most plans on outpatient prescription drug costs to treat life-threatening conditions such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, cancer and AIDS. The cap limits co-payments to $250 per drug per month.
Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 339, which mimics the exchange’s prescription drug co-payment cap and covers those who get their insurance outside the exchange.