Democrats Put High Drug Costs on Radar Screen

Published in Woonsocket Call on September 30, 2018

On August 21, at an afternoon Democratic Senate hearing titled “America Speaks Out: The Urgent Need to Tackle Health Care Costs and Prescription Drug Prices,” Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ron Wyden (D-WA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tina Smith (D-MN), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Joe Manchin (D-WV), gathered to hear the personal stories of witnesses who have struggled with paying for the high cost of prescription drugs and listen to an expert who tracks price trends for prescription drugs widely used by older Americans.

In the last 18 years prescription drug prices have risen 3 times faster than physician and clinical services,” says DPCC’s chairwoman Stabenow in her opening statement. “We pay the highest prices in the world. The outrages prices force people to skip doses, split pills in half and even go without the medication they need,” she says, calling this problem a “matter of life and death,” says Stabenow.

Democrats believe health care to be a basic human right, while the GOP considers it to be a commodity to go to the highest bidder, adds Stabenow, denoting the philosophical differences of the two political parties.

Wyden, Ranking Member on the Senate Finance Committee who sits on the DPCC, recalled that two years ago when then presidential candidate Donald Trump was on the campaign trail pledged to make sure Medicare would negotiate like crazy to hold down costs for seniors and taxpayers. While Trump is well into one year and a half into his term, Americans year ad half into his term Americans believe it is crazy that we are still not negotiating to hold down the cost of medicine.

Wyden and his fellow DPCC committee members also call for Medicare to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Senate DPCCs Puts Spotlight on Rising Drug Costs

At the Senate’s DPCC’s hearing, Witness Nicole Smith-Holt, a Minnesota state employee, and mother of four children shared a tragic story about her 26-year old diabetic son, Alec, who had died because he could not afford his copay of $1,300 for diabetic supplies and insulin.

The Richfield, Minnesota resident recounted how her son tried to ration the insulin to make it last until his next paycheck, but he died as a result of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Stahis Panagides, an 80-year old Bethesda, Maryland retiree, testified that he could not afford to pay $ 400 per month for prescribed Parkinson’s medication. He could not pay for the new course of treatment, recommended by his neurologist, even with a supplemental Medicare plan, he says, so he just refused to take it.

Retired social worker John Glaser, a long-time grassroots organizer for the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, came before the Democratic committee, saying “Medicare drug benefits and the Affordable Care Act’s closing of the coverage ‘donut hole’ have made a huge difference in my life and are invaluable for the quality of my life. Without these improvements he would have spent about $5,000 one-of-pocket on prescription drugs last year, he notes.

Glaser also shared that his brother, who is afflicted with diabetes, heart problems, and kidney disease, takes over 50 pills every day. “If my brother had to pay the full price for all of those drugs, he’d be living on the street,” he says.

Marques Jones, who has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), told the Senators that his MS medication costs about $75,000 annually. Despite having robust insurance coverage, Jones’ annual out-of-pocket spending on drug co-pays and insurance premiums for his family of five is very high. This has caused the resident of Richmond, Virginia to become a vocal advocate for those who suffer from MS.

Finally, Leigh Purvis, Director, Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, a coauthor of the AARP Public Policy Institute’s annual RX Price Watch Reports, warned that today’s prescription drug price trends are not sustainable. “The current system is simply shifting costs onto patients and taxpayers while drug companies remain free to set incredibly high prices and increase them any time that they want,” says Purvis, noting that Congressional efforts to reduce prescription drug prices could save billions of dollars.

AARP Report Tracks Skyrocketing Drug Costs

One month after Senate’s DPCC’s hearing, a new AARP report, released on September 27, 2018, says that retail prices for many of the most commonly-used brand name drugs prescribed to older adults by older adults increased by an average of 8.4 percent in 2017, greater than the general inflation rate of 2.1 percent. The annual average cost of therapy for just one brand name drug increased to almost $6,800 in 2017, says the AARP researchers.

According to the new “Rx Price Watch Report: Trends in Retail Prices of Prescription Drugs Widely Used by Older Americans: 2017 Year-End Update,” released just days ago, revealed that for over a decade, brand name drug prices have “exceeded the general inflation rate of other consumer goods by a factor of two-fold to more than 100-fold.”

If retail drug price charges had reflected the general inflation rate between 2006 and 2017, the average annual cost for one brand name drug in 2017 would have been $2,178 instead of $6,798, said the AARP Public Policy report.

Taking multiple medications can be costly, says the AARP report. “For the average senior taking 4.5 medications each month, this would translate into an annual cost of therapy that is almost $21,000 less than the actual average cost of therapy in 2017 ($9,801 vs. $30,591), notes the findings of the AARP report.

“Despite years of relentless public criticism, brand name drug companies continue increasing the prices of their products at rates that far exceed general inflation,” said AARP Chief Public Policy Officer Debra Whitman, in a September 26 statement with the release of the AARP report. “It’s clear that we need long-term, meaningful policies that go beyond just hoping that the drug industry will voluntarily change its excessive pricing behavior,” adds Whitman.

“The average older American taking 4.5 prescription medications each month would have faced more than $30,000 in brand name costs last year,” adds Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the AARP report. “That amount surpasses the median annual income of $26,200 for someone on Medicare by more than 20 percent. No American should have to choose between paying for their drugs and paying for food or rent,” says Purvis.

Some highlights of AARP’s New Drug Cost Report

AARP report’s findings noted that brand name drug prices increased four times faster than the 2017 general inflation rate and that drug retail prices that year increased for 87 percent of the 267 brand name drugs studied.

Finally, research findings indicated that “retail prices for 113 chronic-use brand name drugs on the market since at least 2006 increased cumulatively over 12 years by an average of 214 percent compared with the cumulative general inflation rate of 25 percent between 2006 to 2017.”

In recent correspondence to the Secretary of the Health and Human Services, AARP calls for regulatory and legislative reforms that will allow the Secretary to be able to negotiate drug prices for Medicare, allowing the safe importation of lower cost drugs into the United States and ensuring that generic drugs can more easily enter the market. Now, AARP waits for a response.

Putting the breaks on the skyrocketing pharmaceutical costs might just be the bipartisan issue that the new Congress can tackle once the dust settles from the upcoming mid-term elections.

To watch DPCC’s August 21st Senate hearing, go to https://www.democrats.senate.gov/dpcc/hearings/senate-democrats-to-hold-hearing-with-americans-hurt-by-high-cost-of-prescription-drugs.

For a copy of AARP’s drug cost report, to http://www.aarp.org/rxpricewatch.

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RI Music Hall of Fame is Poised to Honor the Best

Published in Pawtucket Times, April 18, 2014

Arthur “Pooch” Tavares, with nearly 60 years in the music business, continues to reach out to his old fans and to new generations as well. The 70-year-old Tavares is still performing about 75 concerts a year all over the world with three of the brothers (Perry “Tiny,” Antone “Chubby” and Feliciano “Butch”) who made up the original quintet which became know worldwide as simply Tavares. (Fifth brother Ralph retired from the road in the 1980s.)

The brothers grew up in the Fox Point and South Side neighborhoods of Providence and Tavares says, “The good lord has seen fit to keep us all together.” The most notable moment he remembers from his long career is when The Bee Gees gave his group “,” one of the key songs in the score to Saturday Night Fever, for which they won a 1977 Grammy Award. But running a close second is being inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame.

“It’s quite an honor to be recognized for your music in the place where you were born,” states Tavares.

With just two weeks to go until the induction of this year’s class into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame (RIMHOF) on May 4, at The Met at the historic Hope Artiste Village, Vice Chair Rick Bellaire gives this columnist the details about those who are being recognized as Rhode Island’s best.

In announcing the RIMHOF Class of 2014, Bellaire says, “This initiative provides a great opportunity to acknowledge Rhode Island’s musical greats and celebrate their achievements and now we finally have an organization whose primary goal is to promote and preserve our state’s rich musical heritage. With actual exhibit space, coupled with our online archive, we have in place the tools to curate and showcase the best of Rhode Island’s musical artistry.”

Bellaire notes that it’s sometimes easy to forget, and even hard for some to believe, that such world-acclaimed artists actually have roots right here in Ocean State. “For the smallest state, Rhode island has produced an inordinately large number of truly great, successful and important artists and their devoted local fans helped to place them on the world stage. Tavares is a case in point.”

According to Bellaire, from their earliest days in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence, it was clear the seven Tavares brothers were born to make music. They are recognized as pioneers in the evolution of R&B from the Soul era into the modern Funk and Disco movements of the ’70s and ’80s. They had over a dozen major hits and won a Grammy for “More Than A Woman,” their contribution to Saturday Night Fever. “But,” says Bellaire, “the best part of the Tavares story for me is not about how great they are or how successful they are. Everyone knows that. For me it’s about their journey. They worked really hard to get to the top. Their story will continue to inspire young musicians for decades to come.” Tavares will appear in concert on May 3 at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel.

Bellaire provides some background on the other new RIMHOF inductees:

The Castaleers are recognized as the state’s Rhythm & Blues trailblazers. They came together in the mid-1950s when members of various groups formed a permanent lineup consisting of Richard Jones (later replaced by Joe Hill), George Smith, Dell Padgett, Ron Henries and Benny Barros. In partnership with songwriters/producers Myron and Ray Muffs, they had four national releases and paved the way for the rest of Rhode Island’s R&B greats.

Paul Gonsalves of Pawtucket started out playing tenor sax in big bands including Count Basie’s. As a master of many styles, he became a pivotal figure in the evolution of post-war modern jazz. He joined Duke Ellington in 1950 and provided a crucial ingredient in the modernization of Duke’s sound. His place in the history books was guaranteed by his famous 27 chorus improvisation on “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

Randy Hien of Woonsocket entered the music business in 1971 when he took on the job of reopening the old Loew’s State Theatre as The Palace in downtown Providence to present Rock ’n’ Roll concerts. When the Palace closed 1975, Randy purchased the original Living Room on Westminster Street by trading the keys to his Jaguar XKE for the keys to the club and the liquor license. He kickstarted Rhode Island’s original music scene by instituting a policy which welcomed bands who performed their own music. The club became the center of the state’s music scene and Randy its biggest supporter

Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra founder and conductor emeritus Francis Madeira initially came to Providence to teach music at Brown University in 1943. Finding no professional symphonic orchestra, he created one bringing together a 30-member ensemble that would bring the music of the European masters to the Ocean State. Maestro Madeira will be inducted into RIMHOF on May 10 during a performance by the Philharmonic at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence.

Winston Cogswell of Warwick,was literally present at the birth of Rock ’n’ Roll after moving to Memphis, Tennessee in 1954. At Sun Records, as a guitarist, pianist, songwriter, arranger, producer and recording artist under the name “Wayne Powers,” he collaborated with some of the most important figures in music history including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. He returned to Warwick in 1960 and began working with pianist/composer Ray Peterson. The duo formed Wye Records with a third partner, engineer Ken Dutton, and their debut release as The Mark II, “Night Theme,” became a national hit. Wye remains the only Rhode Island label to score a Hot 100 hit.

By the end of the 1960s, Duke Robillard of Woonsocket had already earned a reputation as one of the finest blues guitarists in the state after stints with the short-lived original lineup of Roomful of Blues and Ken Lyon’s Tombstone Blues Band. In 1970, he reformed Roomful with a three-piece horn section to play jump blues and under his leadership, the band practically single-handedly revived the genre with two albums for Island Records. In the early 1980s, Duke began to pursue a solo career at Rounder Records. His jazzier side emerged with the release of “Swing” in 1987 to critical acclaim. “Duke recently told me he feels that, in music, blues is the universal language,” says Bellaire. “So I say, Duke Robillard is fluent in many languages!”

Freddie Scott of Providence moved to New York in 1956 and began his career as a songwriter for Don Kirshner working alongside to Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Paul Simon. His songs from this period were recorded by Ricky Nelson, Paul Anka, Tommy Hunt and Tommy Hunt. Freddie entered the charts as a singer himself in 1963 with “Hey Girl” written by his friends Carole King and Gerry Goffin. It hit Billboard’s Top 10 and is considered a classic today. In 1966, he scored a #1 R&B song with “Are You Lonely For Me.” His last album was “Brand New Man” in 2001.

In 1976, Cheryl Wheeler moved to Rhode Island to pursue a career in music on the Newport folk scene. She was quickly recognized as one of the finest songwriters and singers to surface in a decade or more. In 1986, her first album brought her national attention. Her song “Addicted” was taken all the way to #1 on Billboard’s Top 40 Country chart by superstar Dan Seals in 1988. Since then, she has released a series of albums of her comic and emotionally intense songs
which are considered singer-songwriter classics around the world. Says Bellaire, “Cheryl is a treasure. Her songs are perfect – every note and every word propels the story forward. She’s also a masterful performer. She can have you in tears one minute and rolling in the aisle the next. Every show is magical.”

RIMHOF Chair Bob Billington says, “This year’s honorees are amazing. Their histories in music are superior. Rhode Islanders should meet and greet them in person at our events. They will not be disappointed.”

Tickets for the Saturday, May 3 Tavares concert at Lupo’s and for the induction ceremonies and concert on Sunday, May 4 at The Met can be purchased at
http://www.rhodeislandmusichalloffame.com.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com. He also serves on RIMHOF’s Board of Directors.