Howard residents voice concern over rising costs at first forum for Prescription Drug Affordability Board
Ana Faguy, The Baltimore Sun
Howard County hosted a forum Monday afternoon to get community input on the rising cost of prescription drugs.
It was the first in a series of listening forums planned across Maryland to bring personal stories to the state Prescription Drug Affordability Board. The Prescription Drug Affordability Board Act was signed into law last May, creating a five-person board to look into what can be done at the local and state level to reduce drug costs.
“Unlike anywhere else in the country, we’re going to have a board saying to prescription drug corporations, ‘You want to charge this much, that’s not reasonable. That’s not affordable for Maryland,’ ” said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, a nonprofit organization that aims to educate Marylanders about health care.
DeMarco joined panelists Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, Chair of the Prescription Drug Affordability Board Van Mitchell and Associate State Director of Advocacy for AARP Maryland Tammy Bresnahan at the Ellicott City 50+ Center.
Mitchell said he plans to take residents’ stories back to the board, which meets for the first time Jan. 13 in Annapolis. He said that meeting will allow the group to have an understanding of what the board can pursue legally.
“It has the potential; it’s going to be a lot of hard work,” Mitchell said. “We think this bill puts Maryland back in the forefront of the health care conversation.”
The board is comprised one member assigned by the governor, one from the state Senate president, one from the speaker of the House, one from the attorney general and Mitchell, who was appointed jointly by the Senate president and speaker. It will be able to set payment limits for prescription drugs purchased by the state, county or local governments beginning in 2022.
In 2023, the board will decide whether the General Assembly should expand upper payment limits to all purchases of prescription drugs throughout the state.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan recently appointed Dr. Joseph Levy of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to the board. He joined Mitchell, a former Maryland health secretary; Dr. Eberechukwu Onukwugha of the University of Maryland; Dr. George Malouf, a leader of MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society; and Dr. Gerard Anderson of Johns Hopkins.
After the panelists spoke Monday, a number of Howard County residents told their stories of rising prescription drug costs.
Sharon Hipkins, of Ellicott City, called her story ordinary.
Hipkins suffers from asthma; her inhaler used to cost $20, she said, but with co-pay it now costs $50. If she didn’t have health care, she said it would cost her $100.
“It’s generic, there’s no change in the drug. It’s the same thing I’ve been taking for 20 years. There’s no reason for it to go up that high,” she said.
Glassman, a Republican, said Hipkins’ story is the most common one he sees across Harford County.
“[Hipkins’ problem] is typical of what we hear about the annual increases each year for generic drugs ... [and how] specialty drugs ... can reach $48,000-$50,000 a year,” Glassman said.
“I came down to learn how we’re going to do our presentation and how we’re going to get stories and support for the prescription affordability board. It’s important that we have a statewide effort. It affects smaller, more rural counties like Harford County, as well as Howard County.”
Ball, a Democrat, said the fight between working people and the prescription drug companies has not been a fair one.
“Our residents should not have to choose between paying for their needed medications or financial ruin,” he said.
U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat who was also in attendance Monday, said he hoped government would turn the stories from the forum into advocacy and called for a bipartisan response to the issue.
“People feel so powerless in the face of big industries out there, particularly the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.
Larry Zarzecki, a Stevensville resident and retired state trooper who has been fighting for prescription cost reductions, said he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 10 years ago. He kept walking around the room as he talked Monday, saying if he didn’t continue to move, he wouldn’t be able to speak at all anymore.
“Look at one another; you are the change," Zarzecki said to the panelists. "Convince me, tell me, why should I be convinced this will work. Prescriptions drugs won’t work unless you can afford them.”
He brought out a bag of his prescriptions, placing all seven of them on a table one by one. He pointed to them and said, “There’s $3,000 a month after copay.”
“There’s one drug here in particular, and this is as of this morning, that has gone up 648% [from] last year,” Zarzecki said. “That prescription is now $7,468 a month.”
Baltimore County has a community forum scheduled for Feb. 18 at a location yet to be determined, DeMarco said.