'Full-Time Job To Manage Medications': NJ Lawmakers Search For Cure For Rising Drug Costs

New Jersey needs stronger oversight over pharmaceutical drug pricing, officials from AARP New Jersey said Wednesday, hoping to rein in an industry that is an economic powerhouse in the Garden State.

At the top of their priority list: a bill that would establish the Prescription Drug Advisory Board to study why, for example, a drug costs more in the U.S. than other countries, and could set price limits.

The goal, they said, is to bring relief to patients like Gary Weiner, a Franklin Park resident, who has survived a heart attack and thyroid cancer, but now takes 13 medications a month.

"The costs range from low to moderate to exorbitant," Weiner, 71, said. "It has become almost a full-time job to manage my medications."

Weiner spoke at a virtual press conference organized by AARP New Jersey that also featured two of the bill's sponsors for the advisory board, Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, and Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen.

The media event came as New Jerseyans say they continue to worry about the rising costs of prescription drugs. A survey taken by AARP New Jersey late last year found nearly 80% of residents didn't think elected officials were doing enough to address the issue.

"New Jersey families face the one-two punch of the pandemic and skyrocketing costs," said Crystal McDonald, associate state director of advocacy for the consumer group.

In 2013, Jared Schechtel, 22, of Neptune, was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, a digestive disorder. Then he learned he had Kinsbourne syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease, four years later. The drug regimen he follows for both conditions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, he said.

Schechtel is lucky. He is on his parents' insurance plan and pays a $4,000 deductible, leaving the insurer and its other customers to pick up the rest.

But to him, the price tag doesn't make sense.

For example, he said, he takes Remicade infusions that cost his insurer $35,000 for each treatment, far more than the drug costs in other countries.

"When I compared the prices to the rest of the world, it’s insane we are three times more expensive than the rest,” he said.

AARP officials threw their support behind a bill to create an advisory board that would evaluate drug prices and cap how much state agencies would pay for high-cost prescriptions. The bill has been introduced in both the Senate and Assembly.

The bill's sponsors said its approach is modeled after a similar board in Maryland. Their hope is that decisions made by a New Jersey board that affect state benefits would alsowould drive down prices for consumers covered by federally regulated insurance plans as well.

"I think this is a really giant step forward," Weinberg said.

The bill's prospects, however, are muddy.

While New Jersey residents might protest high prices, pharmaceutical sales help boost the state's economy. Some 17 of the world's 20 biggest pharmaceutical companies have a major presence in New Jersey, bringing with them a highly skilled and highly paid work force.

Industry officials said the state already has recently passed several measures to help consumers. Among them: the creation of a prescription drug pricing disclosure website with the Division of Consumer Affairs and another tool that connects patients who have trouble paying for medication with assistance programs.

"These new initiatives should be given time for meaningful results to be measured instead of imposing new bureaucracies that would impede access to medicines,” the HealthCare Institute of New Jersey, a trade group, said in a statement.

For now, some residents say they are getting squeezed. Weiner, the Franklin Park resident, said he and his wife devote 30% of their income to prescription drugs and doctors visits.

The high prices have forced him to ration. Sometimes he'll cut his medication in half. Other times, he'll skip a dose.

"It’s not the smartest thing in the world to do, and my doctors tell me I shouldn't do it," he said. But "that's the way finances roll around here."

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