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Gillibrand, in Watertown, announces plan to lower drug prices

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks Thursday at the Jefferson County Office for the Aging in Watertown. (Provided photo — Kara Dry, Watertown Daily Times)

WATERTOWN — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced a plan to lower prescription drug prices during an appearance in the city Thursday.

Standing between the Jefferson County Court Complex and the county office building, Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced a package of three bills, each addressing a different aspect of prescription drug pricing.

“Health care is a human right, not a privilege,” Gillibrand said, “but now, life-saving medicine is only life-saving if you can afford it, and that has to change.”

The package announced by Gillibrand includes the Prescription Drug Relief Act, which would peg the prices charged by medicine manufacturers to the median of the prices they charge in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan.

Kathy Kazakoff, director of the Jefferson County Office for the Aging, who spoke alongside the senator Thursday, said it’s a well-known fact that other countries pay far lower prices for the same drugs.

Drugs in Canada are substantially less expensive than what they charge in the U.S., she said.

“I personally know a number of people who could not afford their insulin,” she added, “so they drove to Ontario to purchase it.”

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, insulin brands that can cost more than $300 per vial in the U.S. can cost about $32 (U.S. dollars) in Canada.

Mayor Jeffrey Smith, who also joined Gillibrand on Thursday, said in his line of work as a physician assistant, he sees wildly different prices for drugs based on a patient’s insurance plan, and the drug itself.

“One of the muscle relaxers we use, it’s amazing, the lower-dose muscle relaxer that is just as efficacious as the higher dose, and on the majority of (insurance) plans, it’s five times as expensive,” he said.

Gillibrand’s proposal also includes the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drugs Act, which would allow patients, pharmacists and prescription drug wholesalers to import medicine from countries like Canada that have lower costs as well.

The legislative package would also include the Medicare Drug Price Relief Act, which would permit the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower prescription drug costs for Medicare Part D, which covers prescription drugs.

That would lower drug prices for any senior citizen enrolled in the program, and Gillibrand said every aspect of her proposal would help to improve senior health and financial stability. She said the rising costs of prescriptions in the U.S. disproportionately affect seniors, who are often facing health problems while on fixed incomes that cannot account for wildly varying drug costs.

“This is a health crisis for older adults who account for one in seven Jefferson County residents,” she said. “Addressing this is one of my top, top, top issues on my seat on the Committee for Aging.”

The Congressional Budget Office projects that allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies would also save the federal government an estimated $456 billions over 10 years.

Gillibrand said that has proven to be an important figure as leaders in Washington discuss aspects of President Joseph Biden’s agenda, like his $2.3 trillion “American Jobs Plan” infrastructure package.

“President Biden and congressional leaders have already discussed using this policy as a way to pay for a lot of the infrastructure investments we want to make,” Gillibrand said.

Similar packages of legislation have been introduced to Congress before, with headline progressive names like Sen. Bernard “Bernie” Sanders, I-Vt.; late Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; and Rep. Rohit “Ro” Khanna, D-Calif, in 2019. Gillibrand was an original co-sponsor of the bill that year as well.

But the package never moved beyond the House, which passed it in 2019. The Senate never took it up. Gillibrand said that was because former President Donald Trump and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not support it.

Gillibrand said now that Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is Senate majority leader, she believes there is real potential to pass this package.

“I’m hopeful that these kind of ideas could be included in the next COVID relief bill, or the next infrastructure bill, or the next bill focused specifically on health care,” she said. “I’m going to work very hard to find bipartisan support for these ideas, because they certainly are going to help everyone, and 88% of Americans support this.”

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