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Illinois residents need relief from drug company greed

Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them.

For decades, Big Pharma has raised drug prices with impunity.

Here in Illinois, the average annual cost of brand name prescription drug treatment increased 58% between 2012 and 2017, while the annual income for Illinois increased only 10.5%.

Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them.

To show how costly prescription drugs have become to average Illinoisans, AARP sent a giant calculator across the state this month. We asked 1,665 people at the State Fair, working in downtown Chicago and at the Senior Lifestyles Expo in Oak Brook Terrace how much their household spends monthly on prescription drugs.

The numbers were astounding.

In just five days, our giant calculator tallied $379,223.50 spent monthly by residents on prescription drugs. Residents spent an average of $2,795.75 out of their own pockets on needed medication each year. And the stories that came with the numbers were heartbreaking.

Some talked about needing second and third jobs just to pay for their prescription drugs. Others described leaving illnesses untreated because they couldn’t afford pills.

That’s why the U.S. Senate needs to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act when they return from August recess. We urge Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Tammy Duckworth to back this vital legislation, which passed the Senate Finance Committee in July with strong bipartisan support.

AARP also supports allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices – a proposal supported by the vast majority of Democratic (90%), Republican (93%) and Independent (95%) voters age 50 and over in a national poll.

For too long, drug companies have been price-gouging seniors and hardworking Americans.

Consider insulin, which people with diabetes rely on. Its price nearly tripled from 2002 to 2013.

Even those of us who don’t need insulin or other prescription drugs are affected by skyrocketing drug prices. We pay not only at the pharmacy counter, but through higher insurance premiums, and through the higher taxes we need to pay to fund programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Older Americans are hit especially hard. Medicare Part D enrollees take an average of 4 to 5 prescriptions each month, and their average annual income is around $26,000. One in three Americans has not taken a medication as prescribed because of the cost.

The root cause of the problem is clear: the high prices of prescription drugs set by pharmaceutical companies when they first come on the market, which then increase faster than inflation year after year.

In March, AARP launched a nationwide campaign called “Stop Rx Greed” to rein in drug prices for all of Illinois and all Americans. The bill under consideration in the Senate would cap out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors and crack down on drug makers whose price hikes outpace inflation.

Meanwhile, Big Pharma is fighting for the status quo — and blocking needed improvements to the system that could bring relief to seniors, families and small businesses. Drug giants Merck, Amgen and Eli Lilly actually sued the Trump administration so they could keep the list prices of their drugs secret from the public. The industry is spending record sums to lobby, and they are running ads claiming that more affordable drugs will actually harm consumers.

But the tide is turning. The National Academy for State Health Policy reports that, so far this year, 29 states have passed 47 new laws aimed at lowering prices for prescription medications. Ultimately, drug costs are a national issue, so federal action is equally essential.

In Washington, there is rare bipartisan agreement that something must be done. Illinois’ congressional delegation is in the position to lead on this issue and make a difference for every resident.

We urge the Senate to pass the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act in the fall, when the House is expected to act on its own drug pricing bill.

While there is reason to be hopeful that drug prices will come down, hope is not enough. No Illinois resident should be forced to choose between putting food on the table or buying a lifesaving medication.

Congress needs to act to stop Rx greed. This legislation should be at the top of the agenda when the Senate returns to Washington.

By Bob Gallo is state director of AARP Illinois.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.