CALVERTON – A prescription for Albuterol, a generic drug used to treat asthma, used to cost just $11.
But in six months time, the price rose to $434 – an increase of more than 4,000 percent, according to a 2014 investigation by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD-7) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Maryland lawmakers now hope to prevent such price gouging in the state.
County Executive Rushern Baker, III, joined state and local healthcare leaders to discuss a new first-in-the-nation state law to prevent excessive price increases of generic and off-patent prescription drugs.
The Maryland General Assembly passed this bill in April and it went into effect on Oct. 1 without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature.
The law states that the Maryland attorney general may take drug companies to court for “unconscionable increases” in generic drugs. Violators may have to pay a fine of up to $10,000.
“They used to say they could raise prices no matter how much, because nobody could do anything about it,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Healthcare for All. “Well, there’s a new sheriff in town.”
When a drug is patented, the owner of the patent can set the price of the drug for several years. Once the drug comes off the patent, generic manufacturers enter the market and their competition generally drives the price down, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said.
“Generic drugs have been one of the few bargains in healthcare for Americans for generations,” Frosh said. “In recent years, the prices of generic drugs have started to skyrocket, and it’s hard to understand why.”
Studies by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging discovered that generic drug prices have increased by as much as 5,000 percent in recent years.
Baker personally noticed some of these increases when he had to pay full-price for his wife’s medication due to a mix-up with their insurance.
“A drug that costs me full price generically $100 when we started out, or less than $100, was $300. That’s how much it had gone up,” he said. “What happens to somebody who comes in there and says, ‘I can’t afford $300.’ When you get a player in the market that gouges like this and takes advantage of the fact that people have no other choice, that is unconscionable.”
He also testified before the Maryland State Senate Finance Committee in support of the bill.
Every speaker at the event discussed the launch of a webpage, healthcareforall.com/hearmystory, where Marylanders can write about how prescription drug prices may have hurt their families. The site is available in English and Spanish.
State Sen. Brian Feldman said the webpage “is going to allow people to literally weigh in with their stories, how they’ve been impacted. It’s going to help the attorney general to do his job, and it’s also going to lay a foundation for us to move forward into some other pieces of legislation and attack this issue.”
DeMarco said so far they’ve received a couple dozen responses on the site.
“There’s more coming in every day,” he said. “People find it hard to do this, because it’s hard to tell their personal story.”
He said their submissions will be sent to the attorney general, who will determine if they are appropriate to bring to court. If they are not, the stories will go to the legislators, who can reference them when developing new laws regarding pharmaceuticals.
In the meantime, the pharmaceutical industry is pushing back against this legislation.
The American Association for Accessible Medicines, a trade association that represents generic drug manufacturers, filed a lawsuit against Frosh and Dennis Schrader, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, over this law. In September, a district judge dismissed the injunction against the law as well as several portions of the case.
“But they’re not done yet,” Feldman said. “In the next session (the pharmaceutical industry) already has a new bill that they plan to put in to water down the bill we have, so the fight’s going to continue. But the genie is out of the bottle, if you will.”
He mentioned other states, such as California, are now developing similar legislation.
In Maryland, about 50 local organizations, including CASA de Maryland, the Maryland State Education Association, Progressive Maryland, and MedChi endorsed this legislation.
“My job is to make sure patients get better,” said Stephen Rockower, past president of MedChi. “When patients are not taking their medicine because they can’t afford them, I can’t do my job. So, having laws such as this that everybody’s been talking about to keep prices of medications lower is vitally important.”