Originally published at Middletown Press.
MIDDLETOWN — State and federal legislators took aim at the world’s massive pharmaceutical industry Friday, which, they say, is violating a law in blocking poor people from securing the drugs they need to address chronic and often life-threatening conditions.
So said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., as he joined fellow lawmakers state Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, state Reps. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, and Quentin Phipps, D-Middletown, and community and health care advocates at the Community Health Center Knowledge and Technology Center on Grand Street.
Since June, a growing number of drug companies have told federally qualified health centers and other providers that they may withhold discounts associated with 340B, the federal drug pricing program used by federally qualified health centers and other health care providers.
Blumenthal gave an example of companies requesting extensive information from patients, “demanding data from them (that they) don’t need,” as one of the unreasonable roadblocks limiting patients’ access. He claimed these drug manufacturers are threatening to block discounted sales of drugs because health clinics and hospitals are using contract pharmacies.
The 340B-covered entities may elect to dispense 340B drugs to patients through contract pharmacy services, “an arrangement in which the 340B covered entity signs a written contract with a pharmacy to provide pharmacy services, according to 340bpvp.com.
“Once again, we are here to talk about a community attack when we need to be taking care of one another during a most critical time,” Phipps said. “Corporations have made dollars we can’t even imagine, and they want to do that on the backs of those that are most vulnerable.”
Some major drug manufacturers are threatening to block consumers from accessing affordable prescriptions, according to Blumenthal. “What is happening here is one more instance of Big Pharma trying to profiteer at the expense of our most vulnerable people.”
Speakers demanded drug companies stop illegally erecting hurdles for patients to access affordable prescription drugs from federally qualified health care providers under the drug-pricing program.
It requires drugmakers to offer discounts on all outpatient drugs to federally qualified health care providers and other safety-net providers that serve low-income patients, according to Blumenthal’s office. Since June, a growing number of drug companies have told providers that they may withhold 340B discounts that allow low-income residents to access prescription drugs at reasonable prices, his office said.
One issue concerned popular insulin drugs, said Kara Lewis, clinical pharmacy leader at Community Health Center.
Limiting access to the program would mean patients with hypertension, high cholesterol, depression, asthma, diabetes and other illnesses may be faced with a fraught choice. “They’re not going to be able to get their meds any other way,” she said.
Lewis fears other drugmakers will follow suit. “It’s like a snowball: If it starts rolling, the whole program could be dismantled,” with “devastating” effects, she said.
The National Organization of Community Health Centers, 340B organizations are among those pushing back, Lewis said.
The issue has become all the more pressing during the coronavirus pandemic. “During a time when people are struggling to make ends meet, this is the worst possible time to be going after someone who is trying to stay healthy,” Lewis said.
Americans are paying the highest drug prices in the world, Lesser said. “We have to warn about a new and terrible threat to Connecticut’s families and those all across the country.”
“People otherwise would have to forego food on their table or paying their rent or clothing their children. It is a matter of economic survival,” Blumenthal said.
Kristen Whitman, local chapter leader of the T1 International initiative Insulin4All, talked about her experience when she couldn’t pay for diabetes drugs four years ago. Her health insurance copay was so high, it exceeded what she took home.
“I was met with a choice when I went to the pharmacy: whether I could fill my insulin or pay rent, afford my food, if I could even afford a car to continue to go to my job,” she said. Her monthly supply of insulin cost $2,400.
“At that time, I tried everything, and I mean everything that is available to diabetics to get insulin at an affordable cost.” Whitman eventually was able to take part in the 340B program at a community health center.
With the world in the midst of a pandemic, patients should not have to worry about not scrambling for prescriptions, Scanlon said. “We don’t need to give the people of Connecticut one more thing to worry about at a time when we’re already worrying about a heck of a lot of stuff.”
He urged pharmaceutical firms to “stop putting profits over people.”
“Why are they breaking the law to block needy people from having the drugs they need?” Blumenthal asked. “To make more money. It’s that simple. These drugs are not a luxury or convenience. They are life-saving.”