Now is a good time for Republicans in Congress and the president to take a step back from their divisive efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, and start working to solve the real problems people face, including rising prescription drug prices.
To do that, we have to start by listening to Minnesotans and people across the country.
If we did, we might hear from a St. Paul woman who stopped taking her arthritis medicine because the drug company increased the price from $60 per treatment to $1,400. This put her in the awful position of having to choose between paying for her treatment and keeping a roof over her head. She chose the latter, but now it's hard for her to grasp a knife or fork. She told me she's angry she can't age gracefully, and I can understand why.
We also might learn about the difficulties of a Duluth couple whose retirement became increasingly unaffordable after the prices of their 14 medications jumped more than six times the original amount, from a total of $80 every three months to $500.
And we'd have to take seriously the concerns raised by a Woodbury, Minn., bankruptcy lawyer who volunteers to help local seniors pay for the medications they need. She said many have racked up thousands of dollars in debt and don't know where to turn for help.
These are the stories I heard throughout Minnesota last year as part of my "Prescription Drug Cost Listening Tour." I heard about the often-devastating impact that skyrocketing drug prices are having on the lives of people in our state.
It's because of these stories - and millions more like them in large and small communities across the country - that I am pressing to refocus the health care debate in Washington.
'Build on (ACA's) successes'
The ACA has done a lot of good, bringing insurance to more than 20 million Americans, making sure no one can be denied coverage for having a preexisting condition, and ending annual and lifetime limits on insurance coverage that drove many Americans into bankruptcy. Today, because of the law, we have the lowest number of uninsured in our history.
But the ACA is not perfect. And that's why I'm focused on what I believe we should have been doing all along: working together to build on the law's successes and to fix the problems that too many families and small businesses face, like premium increases on the individual market and fast-rising prescription drug prices.
The hasty Republican effort to repeal the ACA was not and is not the answer. It would have ripped insurance coverage away from 24 million Americans over the next decade, destroyed Medicaid as we know it, raised costs for seniors, and hurt rural hospitals and nursing homes in Minnesota and across the country. Thankfully, it didn't pass.
'(How) to bring down drug prices'
We know skyrocketing drug prices have contributed to rising health care costs. Recent double-digit increases - far beyond the U.S. inflation rate - are putting essential, even life-saving, medicines out of reach for too many people.
That's why I've recently introduced a comprehensive proposal to bring down drug prices and offer relief to thousands of Minnesota families and seniors. I've been joined on the legislation by 15 Senate colleagues, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who all share my concerns.
My bill would address four important issues.
First, it would help make prescription drugs more affordable. One way to do this would be to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs used by seniors, a proposal that could save up to $24 billion a year. Unlike other federal health programs, like the Veterans Health Administration, Medicare officials currently are banned by law from negotiating better deals with drug manufacturers. That needs to change.
Second, my bill would promote choice and competition by ending anti-competitive behaviors by the pharmaceutical industry, something on which Sen. Klobuchar has been a leader. It would end an underhanded practice called "pay for delay," which is when brand-name drug manufacturers actually pay the makers of less-expensive but equally effective generic alternatives to stay out of the market. By blocking generic-drug competitors from entering the market, big drug companies can reap large profits by keeping brand-name prices high. Putting more generic drugs in the marketplace is a key focus of my legislation.
Third, this bill would improve drug-company transparency. Drug companies often blame the high cost of their drugs on the price of research and development - even though they often spend more on advertising and marketing than on R&D. We actually don't know very much about how these drug companies spend their money. It's something we should fix. Providing more transparency would help hold drug companies accountable for the exorbitant prices they charge.
Finally, we need to reward innovation. That means investing in research to get more drugs to market while also rewarding innovative and new drug development. For example, there are limited options to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, which could soon pose a huge public health problem. Currently, these deadly bugs kill only a few people a year, making it unprofitable to develop a drug to fight them. But it makes sense to incentivize drug companies to discover an answer to these antibiotic-resistant bacteria before they become a worldwide health crisis.
For far too long, our nation's health care debate has been far too divisive. We now have an opportunity to begin working together to solve some of our most vexing health care problems. Addressing the high cost of prescription drugs is a good place to start.
Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. He wrote this for the News Tribune.