Virginia Voters Want Action on Rising Drug Costs. Will Lawmakers Listen?

Photograph courtesy of Jillian Goodwin, graphic by Francesca Daly

By Keya Vakil

August 2, 2023

A new survey found that 75% of Virginia voters support the creation of a prescription drug affordability board to lower the cost of drugs. Democrats tried to create a board this year, but the effort was blocked by the Republican-led state House. 

Jillian Goodwin takes roughly 20 prescription drugs every single day—just to stay alive. 

The 31-year-old Norfolk resident needs that medication to treat her cystic fibrosis (CF), a progressive, genetic condition that affects multiple parts of the body, including the lungs and pancreas. 

Goodwin, who was diagnosed with CF when she was just three months old, has good health insurance and utilizes multiple co-pay assistance programs, which helps minimize the cost of all the drugs she has to take. 

But if she didn’t, the costs of treating her illness would be exorbitant—and she might not be alive.

“Without insurance, without the co-pay assistance and these resources, I truly wouldn’t be here today,” Goodwin said during a press briefing hosted by AARP Virginia on Tuesday. “These resources allow my medication costs to be just a couple hundred dollars a month. Without them, my expenses would exceed $1,600 just for medications per month, which is more than my mortgage payment.”

One of those medications, a recently-approved specialty drug that has been groundbreaking for patients with CF, retails for $360,000 per year, she added. 

Goodwin knows she’s a potential job loss away from catastrophe, and that many people with CF and other serious medical issues that require medication aren’t so lucky.

“Drug prices have gotten out of control and there are many less fortunate than myself that do have to ration their medications to be able to afford their other expenses, such as rent and food,” Goodwin said. 

The annual cost of prescription drugs rose on average 26% between 2015 and 2019, but average incomes in Virginia rose only about 17% in that same time period, according to a 2021 report from AARP Virginia. Drug prices have continued rising at a staggering pace since then. In 2022, pharmaceutical companies increased the prices of more than 1,200 drugs faster than the rate of inflation, with the average price increase for these drugs hitting 31.6%, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

“We cannot keep living in a system that forces individuals as well as their family members and their friends to make these impossible decisions,” Goodwin said. 

That’s why she joined Tuesday’s press briefing and called on Virginia’s General Assembly to establish a Prescription Drug Affordability Board (PDAB), which would have the power to review drug costs and limit how much state agencies, health plans, and individuals pay for certain prescription medications. 

The idea is a broadly popular one, according to an AARP Virginia voter survey released Tuesday.

The survey, conducted in June by the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University, found that 75% of Virginia voters support the creation of a prescription drug affordability board to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

RELATED: Virginians Could Be Paying Less for Prescription Drugs. Here’s Why We’re Not.

Of the 1,000 voters surveyed, 68% reported taking prescriptions regularly, nearly one-third said they spend more than $100 per month on their medications, and 35% reported that they decided not to fill a prescription their doctor had given them due to the cost. 

“I’ve had patients call me in a panic many times because things are getting too expensive,” Dr. Rommaan Ahmad, an Alexandria-based physician and the Virginia state lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care, said during the press briefing. 

Skipping medication not only risks patients’ short-term and long-term health, but also threatens their long-term careers, economic freedom, and even retirement security.

According to Dr. Ahmad, creating a PDAB could help address the growing crisis of rising drug prices—which are occurring as major pharmaceutical companies make staggering profits off the backs of working and middle-class Americans.

“A prescription drug affordability board with the ability to limit this cost can really help make the medications people need much more affordable,” she said. “A prescription drug affordability board can hold these big companies a little accountable.”

State Delegate Karrie Delaney (D-Centreville), who introduced legislation in the House this year to create such a board, used the survey results to reiterate her support for the idea.

“[The survey] results validate what I hear from my constituents when I’m out at their doors — that necessary, life-saving medication is too often out of reach, and they support any and all efforts to reduce healthcare expenses, including a Prescription Drug Affordability Board,” Delaney said on the press call.

Democratic State Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax introduced a companion bill in the Senate, but the Republican-controlled state House and the pharmaceutical lobby successfully blocked his and Delaney’s effort.

The drugmakers argued that a PDAB would stifle innovation, but that argument remains unconvincing to Delaney, who pointed out the astronomical amount that pharmaceutical companies are spending on marketing and advertising, rather than research and development.

“As long as we’re seeing those types of investments, it’s going to be very hard to convince me that all of that money that could have been going into research and development would be serving a better place in an ad budget,” she said.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration also opposed the effort.

“We don’t think a part-time board should regulate this industry,” Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Resources James Williams told a House subcommittee during a January hearing. “It’s a very sophisticated and complicated industry, and health insurers will tell you they spend a lot of time looking at the value of these medicines.”

Supporters of the idea plan to try again next year, but the success of that effort could hinge on the outcome of this November’s elections, when every seat in the General Assembly will be on the ballot.

If Democrats are able to maintain their slim majority in the state Senate and win back control of the state House in November’s legislative elections, they could bypass Republican opposition and vote to create a PDAB next year, and then try to pressure Gov. Glenn Youngkin to support it—or risk being on the wrong side of an overwhelmingly popular idea.

“In an age in which voters don’t always agree on much, they agree on this: The skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs is a critically important issue and a Prescription Drug Affordability Board is a good solution,” Jim Dau, AARP Virginia State Director, said in a statement. “Every candidate running for the General Assembly this fall should know that supporting a drug affordability board is a common sense, bipartisan way to win over voters.”

Creating a board is so popular that the AARP survey suggests lawmakers stand to benefit by running on their support for the idea. Sixty percent of voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a bill to create a PDAB, including 80% of Democrats, 55% of independents, and 47% of Republicans. Only 34% would be less likely to support a candidate who supports the creation of a PDAB.

No matter which party wins control of the state government in November, Delaney hopes lawmakers will step up in 2024.

“The General Assembly must come together in 2024 to pass this legislation and save millions of dollars for hardworking Virginians,” Delaney said.

State Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Glade Hill), who supported the effort to establish a board this year, is also optimistic, noting that at least one-third of next year’s General Assembly will be new, due to dozens of retirements. That turnover could benefit the push to establish a PDAB, according to Stanley.

“A lot of those older delegates and senators were set in their ways, [and] had been influenced by lobbyists for the pharmaceutical companies,” Stanley said on Tuesday’s call. “Big pharma has given a lot of donations to delegate and senator candidates over the years and certainly that plays a part in this, unfortunately. I think what you’re going to have is a lot of new, free-thinking people that are not beholden to the lobby effort of big pharma.

“I have great hope that the new General Assembly in 2024 is going to be constituent-oriented in its thinking and not lobbyist-oriented in its thinking and therefore we’re going to get a lot of great things done that maybe we wouldn’t have been able to get done before, including this prescription board,” Stanley added.

As she closed out her speech, Goodwin drove home the urgency of the issue.

“I think it is time for lawmakers to hold drug companies accountable for these sky-rocketing costs that outpace inflation and make it harder and harder for people to maintain their health,” she said. “Doing nothing is no longer an answer… It’s time for the legislature to act.”

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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