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Pennsylvania senators revive bipartisan bill calling for transparency in prescription drug costs

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(By Dave Fidlin | The Center Square contributor) – When he was diagnosed with leukemia a dozen years ago, doctors told Paul O’Hara he would live, as he describes it, “a happy and normal life,” so long as he took the critically important drugs prescribed to him.

Then came the sticker shock.

In the early days of his diagnosis, O’Hara, a Doylestown resident, grappled with balancing the cost of monthly prescription, which he said were about the same as his mortgage payment.

O’Hara eventually faced foreclosure notices and other challenges to take his medications, though his financial struggles have since improved.

“I am very fortunate to live in a country that has drugs to treat these sorts of conditions,” O’Hara said at a news conference this week announcing a new bipartisan bill. “But that’s a lot to put on a cancer survivor – it’s a lot to process.”

State Sens. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, have reintroduced legislation aimed at removing the cloak of mystery around prescription drug pricing. Laughlin and Street had presented a previous iteration of Senate Bill 579, though it had not gained traction in the first go-round.

If it moves forward this legislative session in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, SB 579 would require prescription drug companies to clearly break down the reason for their costs.

When the issue went before state lawmakers previously, several officials within the industry pointed to research and development as a reason for the pricing.

“I think we are all well aware these pharmaceutical companies provide research that does result in lifesaving medications,” Laughlin said. “We want them to prosper and be able to continue this work. We just want to know how they arrived at these prices.”

Street said he has heard from constituents who face ongoing challenges for critical prescription medications, sometimes balancing their cost with such staples as food.

“Greater information will allow us to be more responsible legislators,” Street said. “We’ll never be able to get our arms around this without basic information.”

Research and development – which Laughlin and Street readily acknowledged likely is a costly part of the balance sheet – is one of multiple expenses for pharmaceutical companies.

The legislators’ bill also is asking for a detailed breakdown of the costs associated with clinical trials, the amount the companies receive in grants from the government and other sources and costs related to patents and licensing specific drugs.

Recent polling data suggests SB 579 would have support among Pennsylvanians. According to Altarum, a research organization, 51 percent of surveyed residents within the state said they are “somewhat” or “very” worried about their ability to afford prescription drugs.

Respondents across the state also reported taking such measures as skipping doses or cutting pills in half to cut down on the cost of acquiring medications. The highest concentration – 33 percent – reported taking such measures in the northwest portion of the state. Other areas hovered around 18 to 19 percent.

According to Altarum’s findings, gleaned from polling late in 2020, 92 percent of surveyed Pennsylvanians said they agreed the state Attorney General should take legal action to prevent price gouging and unfair drug price hikes.

“We are seeing a very similar response, regardless of party affiliation,” said Lynn Quincy, a senior adviser with Altarum. “That suggests there is a lot of support.”

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