By Mary Johnson, editor
Remember “Flo”? In 1999 she was the blond, perky, mature lady who came onto our TV screens telling us that she was here “to tell seniors about changes that affect our medicines.” She would end by saying “I don't want big government in my medicine cabinet.” Flo implied that, if Medicare provided a drug benefit for seniors, it would stifle research and development of new life-saving drugs coming to market and restrict access to drugs a patient was already taking.
It turned out that Flo was working for the deep pocketed pharmaceutical industry. They successfully used her ad to sink major legislation proposed by President Bill Clinton to add a voluntary drug benefit to Medicare. It wasn’t until 2003 that the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act, which added the Part D drug benefit to Medicare, was finally signed into law by President George W. Bush. But, although the bill provided a drug benefit, it specifically prohibited Medicare from negotiating prices with drug manufacturers, even though Medicare negotiates prices for almost every other service and for Part B drugs. High drug prices put patient’s lives at risk every day when people can’t afford to fill their prescriptions.
Now, 18 years later, TSCL is hopeful that 2021 will be the year when Congress finally enacts legislation to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. This change is supported by about 85% of participants in TSCL’s Senior Surveys. In 2019, Congress came very close to passing such a bill. In 2019, the House passed legislation, that would have allowed Medicare to negotiate drug prices, but was loathed by the pharmaceutical industry. It stalled in the Senate late in 2019 when Senate leadership refused to take up the bill.
But in 2020 COVID-19 dramatically proved Flo wrong. It took the pandemic to demonstrate what our nation can achieve when our government gets into the medicine cabinet and “partners” with drug manufacturers. We witnessed the record setting development and production of not just of one, but multiple, life-saving new vaccines from several pharmaceutical manufacturers.
It required a mix of financial incentives, unprecedented world-wide need, and government prodding. But drug companies stepped up, and based on their performance in the stock market, they appear to be prospering. The federal government negotiated not only prices, but also it purchased hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines, made the vaccines available to the public at no charge, and has overseen the distribution of the vaccines to states. Those vaccines are saving lives, helping to get workers back on the job, and allowing those of us who are fully vaccinated to carefully start to resume pre-pandemic activities, such as visits with friends, family and grandchildren.
Getting the COVID-19 vaccine was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. It was emotional for a lot of people who were there. I cried when I got both of my shots — not because it hurt, (I never felt either one) but from the overwhelming sense of relief, joy and gratitude. “Mo,” the chief of our local Emergency Medical Services who gave me my second dose, teared up too. He said he was relieved for the opportunity to save lives “this way” rather than making so many grim ambulance calls.
Giving COVID vaccines in school gymnasiums and community centers has been just as healing for those giving the shots as for those of us getting them. Our vaccine hall was bubbling with excited happy voices and laughter. The moment I entered I was struck by how strange and rare that laughter had become and how much I had missed that sound!
Mo soberly told me that it has been a grueling experience for “a small-town emergency medical worker” who, before COVID, was used to mainly pushing paper, and just going on only a few calls a week for the “random” auto accident or over-dose. Day after grueling day, Mo and his crew have answered calls to hundreds of homes in my county. And sadly, they are still at it. If you haven’t gotten one yet, please consider getting a COVID vaccine! Contact your local health department or doctor.
So how can we best use this momentum from our vaccine experience to build relationships with drug manufacturers and lower costs for consumers? TSCL is closely watching for drug price negotiation provisions to be included in legislation this year. What portion of your Social Security benefit do you spend on healthcare costs? Please take TSCL’s 2021 Retirement Survey.
Source: “TV Ad’s Flo Speaks For Drug Companies,” Harry F. Rosenthal, The Associated Press, October, 30 1999.