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VOL. 132 | NO. 65 | Friday, March 31, 2017

Memphis Rep. Towns Attacks Drug Lobby

By Sam Stockard

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Legislation designed to make oral chemotherapy medication more affordable is hitting a snag in the form a financial reporting amendment.

JOE TOWNS

The holdup is raising the ire of state Rep. Joe Towns Jr., who believes the Legislature is running scared of big drug companies.

It happened in the House Insurance and Banking Committee this week when an amendment was proposed requiring pharmaceutical companies to file a report with the Tennessee Commerce and Insurance Commission if the price of their chemotherapy medication increases 10 percent in one year.

“What chapped me is these damn lobbyists, these pharmaceutical people and the people that think they run this building – and nobody’s voted for them – guaranteeing if you do this and put an amendment on it they’re going to kill the damn bill. That’s what I don’t like,” Towns says.

The Memphis Democrat made his views known in the committee meeting when Rep. Bill Beck proposed the amendment to legislation by Rep. William Lamberth. The bill would prohibit an insurance provider from requiring a higher co-payment for oral anticancer medication than for injected chemotherapy medication.

“Nobody’s voted for them sapsuckers, and they don’t have the power, nor should they have the power unless these jokers (lawmakers) acquiesce,” Towns says. “So my concern was that they need to have some courage and to stand up and they need to get this health care cost in terms of medicine and pharmaceuticals under control, because there’s greed, there’s been greed and there will continue to be greed if there ain’t no courage by these members.”

Beck, a Nashville Democrat, says he was surprised by the blowback he received when he decided to sponsor the amendment. He points out regulation of prescription drug prices is non-existent at state and federal levels.

“It was a reporting transparency amendment, and all of a sudden I’m bombarded by big PhRMA’s lobbyists saying if you push this through it will kill the bill. We will kill the bill,” Beck says.

Ultimately, he withdrew the measure after Lamberth told him it would lead to the bill’s demise. But it could be brought back next week by another House member in the same committee.

Lamberth, a Republican from Sumner County, says three groups are involved when dealing with oral chemotherapy medication: the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and consumers who are “just trying to fight for their own lives.”

Lamberth points out the legislation doesn’t get into the pharmaceutical aspect of the matter and for good reason.

“That is its own massive issue on transparency and drug pricing and exactly how long a drug stays out there, how much it should cost, how much research and development goes into it,” Lamberth says.

Sandwiching a pharmaceutical reporting requirement into the equation with insurers and patients appears to be an effort to defeat the bill, he says.

“I just want to help the patients that are in my district that can’t afford the oral chemo drugs because of the type of insurance they signed up for,” Lamberth says. “I just want to make sure those folks are taken care of who have purchased an insurance product that they had no idea didn’t cover their oral chemo meds, because nobody ever plans to get cancer.”

When someone does become ill, their insurance should provide coverage so they can afford the medication their doctor prescribes, he says. Lamberth contends he’s not trying to protect the pharmaceutical industry and would “wholeheartedly” support legislation creating more transparency and driving down the cost of drugs.

PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, hasn’t taken a formal position on the bill, according to spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll.

The organization supports the concept of “oral parity” to make sure patients get the best treatment possible, she says.

“But certainly we would have concerns about an amendment that creates additional financial reporting requirements that don’t actually help address the problem the clients are facing,” Carroll says.

Putting such a burden on pharmaceutical companies could “stunt innovation” and wind up harming patients without dealing with problems they face at the pharmacy, “which is a conversation we do want to have,” Carroll says.

Towns, though, says “greed” is at the heart of the problem, along with the failure of government leaders to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry, in part because they receive donations from drug makers.

He solution is for government to act more like Wal-Mart and refuse to buy unless the prices come down.

“You’re the biggest customer in the world, but you’re the biggest sucker in the world, the government,” he says.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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