Lawmaker, advocates urge creation of drug affordability board

Pharmaceutical companies claim price controls would stifle innovation

By: - December 7, 2021 7:00 am

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Jared Schechtel was forced to make a difficult choice: his health or his finances.

As a teenager, the 23-year-old developed Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that inflames the gastrointestinal tract, and he later developed opsoclonus myoclonus syndrome, a rare neurological disorder.

“I get bi-monthly Remicade infusions that cost about $35,000 for each one. This means my infusions cost $200,000 every single year, and that doesn’t even include the nurse that administers the infusion. Luckily, I’m on my father’s insurance,” he said during a press conference at the Statehouse Monday. “But that won’t last forever.”

Schechtel, who said his conditions forced him to leave college and prevent him from working, joined advocates and Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) to urge the Legislature to advance a bill that would create a new board to examine prescription drug affordability.

The measure, which has cleared committees in both chambers but must still be approved by Assembly and Senate budget panels, would create an eight-member board composed of individuals with experience related to health care. They would be appointed by the governor, Senate president, Assembly speaker, and attorney general.

The body would be responsible for examining New Jersey’s pharmaceutical distribution and payment in search for ways to lower consumer costs.

The measure would provide the board with authority to establish upper payment limits on purchases and insurance reimbursements for prescription drugs, import pharmaceuticals from abroad, and use a bidding process to drive down prices, among other things.

“It is a well-known fact that Americans pay more for prescription drugs than anyone else in the world,” Singleton said. “Unfortunately, New Jerseyans are not immune to astronomical prescription drug costs. This is a problem that impacts residents in every corner of our state.”

In addition to its price-setting powers, the board would be required to study yearly shifts in the costs of generic drugs and determine how those shifts impact affordability. It would also identify brand-name prescription drugs with a wholesale cost of $30,000 or more for a year of treatment or that see a wholesale cost of $3,000 or more in a given 12-month period, along with potentially unaffordable drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies — including Pfizer Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Gilead Sciences — have joined industry groups in lobbying against the bill, claiming price controls would stifle innovation and deal their firms a deathblow. Trade association Health Care Institute of New Jersey says 11 of the world’s 20 largest pharmaceutical companies maintain a headquarters or significant presence in the Garden State.

AARP, New Jersey Citizen Action, and the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network are among those to support the measure.

Singleton and the bill’s other supporters want the measure to be made law before the end of the lame duck session. That leaves lawmakers with about a month to bring the measure to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, though the Legislature is not expected to be active between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Help from the state’s Republicans appears unlikely. The Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee and the Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee each advanced it in party-line votes, with the panels’ GOP members voting no without comment.

“Never has there been more of a necessary time to pass this legislation,” Singleton said. “The pandemic shined a bright light on racial inequities in our health care system, demonstrating that we must do more to ensure that health care and access to life-saving medicine is a right and not a privilege.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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