New NAFTA Will Lock in High Drug Prices

Commentary written by Ann Young, Raleigh, North Carolina

North Carolina is known as a cradle of innovation, and for good reason. We have top-notch research facilities, a smart, dedicated workforce, and we take great pride when our cities are named to “Top Most Innovative Places in the U.S.” lists, as Raleigh was just last month. But Raleigh made another list this year, one with much less distinction: “Most Expensive U.S. Cities for Prescription Drugs.” It’s great that our best and brightest are pursuing the next generation of cures. But if no one can afford them, what’s the point?

And if Congress approves the newly negotiated U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in its current form, the problem could be made even worse.

Ten percent of all healthcare spending is on prescription drugs, which amounts to a staggering $328.6 billion per year. This number has been increasing steadily since 1980. Seniors, who take more medications than younger people, bear the brunt of these rising costs, even though many of us live on fixed incomes and are unable to afford such dramatic increases. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone. Too many retirees are being forced to choose between filling their prescriptions and paying other bills.

Provisions in the new NAFTA could drive up costs for American patients by reducing competition within the pharmaceutical industry. The Alliance for Retired Americans, representing 4.4 million retirees across the United States, recently sent a letter, along with AARP and others, to American trade negotiators, noting that the new agreement, if left as-is, “will keep drug prices high in the United States, to the detriment of our nation’s patients, job creators, workers, and taxpayers.” News reports have noted that drug makers are among the biggest winners of the whole agreement.

The letter also expressed concern over restrictions on biosimilars, which are more affordable versions of expensive biologic drugs that are made available after their patents expire. Some of the most commonly prescribed and most expensive biologic drugs treat conditions that affect seniors more than any other group of Americans, including rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative vision loss. Competition between equally effective drugs is one of the only things that has proven to drive down costs and spending over time. Limiting it, especially through a trade agreement negotiated with foreign governments instead of elected U.S. officials, would hurt patients who rely on these medications.

The new trade deal must still be approved by Congress. There is time to improve and keep medicines from becoming even more unaffordable for older Americans. Congressman David Price helped to negotiate a deal with the Bush Administration in 2007, which led to the eventual passage of trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, Peru and South Korea. A key part of the changes was language that expanded access to medicines. Members of our congressional delegation, many of whom have continuously worked to improve access to healthcare for North Carolinians, should be strong advocates for improving this new agreement, for the sake of their constituents of all ages.

It’s not too late to fix this. We need fair, effective leadership to keep the Trump Administration from raising drug prices on Americans through the new USMCA, and it needs to happen quickly.

Ann Young is a UFCW Retiree and board member of the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans.

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