This last May, Nicole Smith-Holt and James Holt Jr. joined with other families at our State Capitol to speak out against the skyrocketing cost of insulin.
The Holts weren’t just there as advocates, but as parents — motivated by the loss of their 26-year-old son, Alec.
Alec was a full-time restaurant manager, but like so many Americans, he still struggled to pay for the prescription drugs he needed. In June of last year, he started rationing insulin because he couldn’t afford $1,300 a month for insulin and supplies. Tragically, by the end of the month, he had died.
I stood next to the Holts at that rally in Minnesota and later met with them when they came to Washington this year. Their story is heartbreaking — and I heard similar stories as I traveled to all 87 counties of our state this year: People being forced to choose between refilling a critical prescription or keeping up with rent, paying the mortgage, or turning on the heat in the winter.
That’s just not right. Parents shouldn’t have to worry about how they’ll afford the inhaler their kid needs to get through the day. Seniors shouldn’t have to worry about how they’ll be able to put food on the table and still pay for the insulin they need. And the thousands of young Minnesotans — like Alec — who are just starting their careers shouldn’t have to ration the drugs they need because the prices are just too high.
The president has repeatedly said that the pharmaceutical companies are “getting away with murder.” I agree, so let’s get specific. Take insulin, for example. The price of insulin has tripled in the last decade. A form of insulin that was listed at $17 per vial in 1997 cost nearly $138 in 2016. That’s a 700 percent increase. In fact, Minnesota’s attorney general just brought a lawsuit against three insulin manufacturers for price gouging.
But it’s not just insulin. The price of Daraprim, a drug that treats malaria and other infections, went up 5,000 percent overnight. And Ariad Pharmaceuticals raised the price for a leukemia drug four times in one year alone, so it now costs nearly $199,000 a year.
That’s unconscionable. And that’s why I’m leading legislation that would finally allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies to bring drug prices down.
We know that direct negotiation has allowed Medicaid and the Department of Veterans Affairs to achieve significant discounts on generic and brand-name prescription drugs. Medicare should be able to do the same and harness the negotiating power of its 41 million seniors to bring prices down. Thirty-four senators have joined my bill — we can and must get to 51.
Members from both parties can agree that competition is one of the best ways to make sure prescription drugs are affordable. Where there’s a lack of competition, price increases are sure to follow. That’s why we have to stop pharmaceutical company tactics that keep high-quality generic drugs off the market.
We can start by ending an outrageous tactic called “pay-for-delay,” where big brand-name pharmaceutical companies pay off generic manufacturers to keep less expensive products off the market. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, my proposal with Sen. Chuck Grassley to stop this practice would save taxpayers $2.9 billion. I can’t imagine any senators voting against this if it’s allowed to come to the Senate floor for a vote, so let’s get this done.
We also need to make sure that Americans can import safe drugs that cost less. In Canada, people spend half as much for prescription drugs as we do here in the U.S. In the U.S., a 90-day supply of Celebrex, an anti-inflammatory drug, can cost more than $600. Canadian pharmacies sell it for less than $200. It’s why I joined with my friend former Sen. John McCain to push for common-sense legislation that would allow Americans to safely import prescription drugs from Canada.
Every month we fail to act means another month when Minnesotans and people across the country continue to struggle and don’t get the care they need. It means more friends and families losing their loved ones, like Alec.
There are a number of bipartisan solutions on the table. Now we need the courage — courage like the Holts have shown — to take action, work for the betterment of our country, and save lives.
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is a member of the U.S. Senate.