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Charlottesville Democrats urge Younkin to OK prescription drug affordability board

A bill that aims to reduce prescription drug prices for Virginians is sitting on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk, and Charlottesville Democrats are rallying in hopes the Republican will sign it.

State Sen. Creigh Deeds and Del. Amy Laufer visited Trinity Episcopal Church in Charlottesville on Thursday to promote two bills that would create a prescription drug affordability board: an independent body of medical experts that would review the cost of prescription drugs and establish maximum prices.

“It is not advisory. It is setting price limits, especially for the costliest drugs,” Laufer told The Daily Progress. “A lot of what we’re talking about are people with chronic illnesses that need these drugs to live, honestly.”

One of those people is Mara Shapiro, who joined the politicians at Trinity Thursday. Shapiro suffers from Crohn’s and Addison’s diseases, both of which require regular medication. She called herself lucky to have a quality health insurance plan. Without it, she said she isn’t sure how she would afford the medications she needs to survive.

For instance, she said the drug she takes for Crohn’s costs more than $26,000 per dose, and she must take it every eight weeks.

“It’s $250,000 worth of medication I take every year,” Shapiro told The Daily Progress, emphasizing that she will have to take these medications for the rest of her life.

In her work for the American Gastroenterological Association, she said she regularly sees patients who suffer from Crohn’s but don’t have insurance. Instead of taking the most effective medication, Shapiro said they resort to using cheaper alternatives that have significant side effects.

“If you don’t have a great health insurance plan, you don’t have access to the latest therapies for this disease, and that is really sad,” she said.

Prescription drug affordability boards exist in eight other states, with Minnesota and Colorado most recently joining the list. The boards operate a bit differently in each state, but the goal is the same: to have medical professionals consider how to lower high pharmaceutical prices.

“The whole idea is you’ve got a board of experts. The General Assembly are generalists,” Deeds told The Daily Progress.

He expects the Senate bill, which he patroned along with Franklin County Republican Bill Stanley, will help make certain essential drugs more affordable.

“I hear from people all the time that they’re having trouble paying for their prescriptions, particularly older people on fixed incomes,” Deeds said. “We’ve got a governor who talks and talks about reducing the cost of living. That’s been one of his priorities. We’ve got to be able to work together to get this done.”

It’s not yet clear if Youngkin agrees that Deeds’ bill or a prescription drug affordability board are a good way to reduce the cost of living. He has until April 8 to sign the bill.

Critics of the bill are urging Youngkin to use his veto power, saying the board would harm Virginia’s life sciences industry and stifle investment in research and development.

Virginia Bio, a trade association that represents the life sciences and biotechnology industry, is advocating against the possibility of such a board coming to Virginia. In a letter to Youngkin, Virginia Bio CEO John Newby said he commends the General Assembly for seeking ways to address affordability.

“However, any policy to do so must strike a balance between addressing affordability, preserving patient access to critical treatments and protecting Virginia’s life sciences innovation ecosystem. Establishing a PDAB as currently envisioned in SB 274 and HB 570 would fall short of all those goals. Your veto of these bills is vital to ensure that Virginia’s strong innovation ecosystem is preserved,” Newby wrote.

Supporters of a board don’t buy it. Pharmaceutical companies make massive profits, they say, and even if a board capped drug prices, those corporations would still bring in big revenues leaving them with plenty of money to continue funding research and development.

Tensions are currently high between Youngkin and Virginia’s leading Democrats, in part due to Louise Lucas, a Portsmouth Democrat and the president pro tempore of the Senate, who shot down Youngkin’s $2 billion plan to house Washington, D.C., hockey and basketball teams in an Alexandria arena. Those tensions are affecting state budget negotiations, as Youngkin has traveled to parts of Virginia criticizing the Democrat-supported budget proposal, calling it “the backward budget.”

The governor has vowed to cut the $2.6 billion tax increase proposed in the Democratic budget package. It prioritizes education, with more than $2.5 billion in new funding for K-12 public education and a 3% salary increase for teachers and state employees.

Lucas and Democratic Del. Luke Torian, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, recently wrote Youngkin a letter saying that the $4 billion he’s granted in tax breaks over the past two years “already strain our ability to meaningfully serve working Virginians and their families.”

On Thursday, Deeds said negotiations are “very precarious” and criticized Youngkin’s own budget proposal for being imbalanced.

“We are in maybe an unprecedented level of precariousness and division,” Deeds said. “I feel very good about the budget we sent the governor, but I know that he’s not happy, and I expect that we’ve got some tense days between now and the eighth of April.”

What those tense days could mean for the potential prescription drug affordability board remains to be seen. Youngkin has already vetoed 70 bills that have come to his desk, and he’ll almost certainly veto more. That could include the very bills that Deeds and Laufer rallied in support for on Thursday.

“The governor is currently reviewing the legislation and remains committed to reducing prescription drug costs and lowering the cost of living in Virginia,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter told The Daily Progress.


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