LIMA — It is a story that has become all too familiar for many in Ohio and beyond, with people facing increasingly high prices for prescription drugs, sometimes to the point where people are delaying treatments or choosing between paying for prescriptions or paying rent. Coupled with concerns over pharmaceutical company profits versus research and development costs, this situation has fostered resentment on the part of consumers and the desire to see something done to bring drug prices down.
Enter Ohio Issue 2, a proposed law that would, according to the ballot issue language, “require the State of Ohio, including its state departments, agencies and entities, to not pay more for prescription drugs than the price paid by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.” Currently, the VA is given a 24 percent discount when it purchases prescription drugs for veterans.
If passed by voters Nov. 7, this measure would apply to Ohioans on government-administered prescription plans, such as those receiving assistance through Medicaid as well as government employees. That group represents about one in three Ohioans. Those on employer-sponsored insurance would not be eligible.
Yes on Issue 2: We need to do something
For Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices, the organization behind Issue 2, passing this ballot initiative would rein in a runaway pharmaceutical industry while saving hundreds of millions of dollars for Ohio taxpayers.
“We have an independently done study where a professor from Case Western University and some other folks took a look at state purchasing that is publicly available,” campaign spokesman Matt Borges said. “They said it could save up to $560 million, but they’ve always said consistently that the most realistic figure is $400 million. I like going with what they’ve told us is the most realistic figure.”
For proponents of Issue 2, pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of a lack of price controls in the United States, pointing to such numbers as $2,504 for an injection of the arthritis medication Humira, compared to $1,158 in Great Britain and $978 in France.
Borges and others have acknowledged that this would not affect the majority of Ohioans, but it would be an important first step that voters can take, rather than waiting for the state and federal governments to intervene.
“We’re talking about an empowering message to Ohioans to take matters into your own hands and tell the policymakers that it’s time to take this matter seriously,” Borges said. “We know Ohioans believe in this and that they have a very low opinion of drug companies, as they should.”
Borges also acknowledged that the yes campaign will be outspent tremendously by those on the other side, with funds coming from pharmaceutical companies wanting to maintain the status quo.
“That’s what the drug companies are trying to do, to stymie reform and kill it in the crib,” he said. “If we speak with a loud enough voice, I’m certain that there will be more reform at the state level, and I’m very hopeful that there will be reform at the federal level.”
Borges also dismissed the potential for a rise on drug costs for those not receiving government-bought drugs, saying that when mandated discounts to the VA were enacted, there was no immediate spike in costs to everyone else because of the threat of blow-back from voters.
“They would be in crisis management mode if they turned their backs on Ohio voters this November and say, ‘Thanks for enacting that reform, so now we’ll turn around and screw everyone else,’” he said. “I don’t buy it.”
No on Issue 2: Measure is ineffective, deceptive
It may sound like an easy choice whether or not a voter would want lower drug costs, but opponents of Issue 2 say that this is not the way to make that happen.
When it comes to ensuring that prices match the lowest price available through the VA, that is not possible, because of additional, private contracts between the department and manufacturers.
“The VA negotiates additional, supplemental discounts with the drug manufacturers, and those are not disclosed publicly,” campaign communications director Dale Butland said.
Additionally, this measure would leave two-thirds of Ohioans out, since it only applies to drug purchases made by the state government.
“Their costs would not go down if Issue 2 passed,” Butland said. “They could go up, and probably would go up, because of cost shifting that would likely occur.”
Opponents also take issue with the claim of a $400 million savings with this initiative, with former Ohio Budget Director Greg Browning publishing a memorandum saying that study used faulty logic and did not take into account discounts on drugs the state already receives.
One of the largest points of contention, however, deals with the second paragraph of the ballot initiative, which says that the state would be required to “pay petitioners’ reasonable attorney fees and other expenses,” meaning that taxpayer money would be used to pay for any legal defense of the ballot in the event of a lawsuit. Opponents maintain that one or more lawsuits could be a likely scenario, especially given that the ballot issue’s primary proponent is Californian Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
“That could get very expensive because Mr. Weinstein is a very litigious fellow,” Butland said. “He has already filed 52 lawsuits against government agencies in seven different states, including three in Ohio.”
Butland acknowledged the frustrations that the public has expressed over high drug prices, but he followed by saying that, while he hopes there is a right way to address it out there, it is not what will be on the ballot Nov. 7.
“My own personal feeling is, just speaking for myself, is that the problem of drug affordability is part of a broader issue in this country related to health care,” he said. “We have a national problem that will take a national solution. You can’t do this on a piecemeal, state-by-state basis.”
Craig Kelly is a staff writer for the Lima News, which is owned by the same company as the Urbana Daily Citizen.