Civil Rights groups escalate fight against high prescription drug costs

(l-r) Hilary Shelton, NAACP: “The bottom line is that we believe that health care is a civil right.” and Rev. Al Sharpton, NAN: “Let us make 2021 the year of Black health equity.”

(TriceEdneyWire.com) D. B. Wright, former head of a non-profit religious organization in Washington, D.C., was well taken care of by his leadership board. He enjoyed an employment package that included full health care among other benefits.

“Being gainfully employed and having one of the best health insurances, I never thought about what medicines cost,” he said in a recent interview. But then crisis hit. Following a divorce, he moved back to his hometown of Albany, Ga., where he took a job with no benefits, which he eventually lost due to severe illnesses over the past five years. That’s when reality set in.

“I had to borrow money from my family and friends in order to get the medication that I needed to treat various issues.” Those issues included surgery to remove a baseball size tumor on his liver, a gall bladder removal and ultimately chronic pancreatitis.

In excruciating pain, Wright was prescribed a medicine called Creon  to help with his digestion and relieve the pain. It worked wonders in the hospital. But upon discharge, he learned that Creon would cost him $850 a month, well beyond his income of zero except what he could borrow from friends and family. Even with a coupon or pharmacy discount, he said, the price “was still beyond my financial ability.”

Also dealing with high blood pressure and suffering through a spinal disorder that rendered him temporarily unable to walk, Wright has resolved what he believed to be the bottom line in America when it comes to prescription drugs. The doctors and pharmacists may be sympathetic, but the medication simply “costs what it costs,” he said. “It was a horrendous experience. And it’s so interesting that you need these medications to survive. It was horrible to go through. You kind of feel like if you don’t have the money, you don’t matter.”

The experience of D.B. Wright, who asked to only use his initials to protect his privacy, is among the reasons that civil rights leaders and lawmakers across the nation are now pressing increasingly hard to establish public policies to monitor and help make prescription drug prices affordable. Best known for their efforts to address police misconduct, voting rights protections, racial inequality, and economic injustices, civil right organizations are now escalating their focus on issues in the area of health care, particularly the high cost of prescription drugs.

“While there has been much partisan back and forth on these issues in Washington, there has not been enough conversation about reining in the profits and excesses of health insurance companies, which refuse to cover critical procedures, medicines and services in order to preserve their billions of dollars in profits,” said Rev. Al Sharpton in an Oct. 30, 2020 letter  to Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) “Let us make 2021 the year of Black health equity.”

Sharpton’s letter is part of a growing focus on racial disparities and inequities in health care, partially ignited by findings that people living in predominately Black counties are nearly “three times more likely to die  of the COVID-19 than predominately White counties,” he said in his letter. The letter culminates more than a year of efforts by his National Action Network (NAN) and other civil rights and health organizations to deal with the suffering of people who must sometimes risk their lives by choosing to take care of other crucial bills instead of paying for prescription drugs.

Similarly focused, the NAACP national board of directors last year passed a resolution calling for Prescription Drug Affordability Boards (PDAB) in every state, which would “act as a watchdog for the public. It will carefully review drug costs and establish fair and affordable costs for state and local government.

“The NAACP supports the creation of a Prescription Drug Affordability Board in each state to determine how best to make prescription drugs more affordable for their residents, including by examining the entire drug supply chain, including the role of drug manufacturers and Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs), and establishing maximum affordability payment rates for expensive drugs that create significant affordability problems for residents, building upon the tradition of health care cost scrutiny.”

The state of Maryland last year became the first state in the nation to successfully create a PDAB with the national and state NAACP chapters “playing a critical role,” as well as dozens of Black faith groups, labor, business and other non-profits, said Vincent DeMarco. DeMarco is president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative (MCHI), which led the PDAB initiative in the state.  The Maryland board has won accolades from DeMarco.

“They are doing a very good job right now of examining what drugs are really high cost and what would make prescription drugs more affordable for people,” he said. “So, it’s really an exciting new way at the state level to address this problem.”

(This article is the first part of a series on the impact of high prescription drug costs on consumers made possible through the 2020 West Health and Families USA Media Fellowship.)