Advocates debate Prop. 61, which seeks to regulate CA drug prices

Suhauna Hussain/Staff

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Advocates debated Proposition 61 — a state ballot measure that aims to standardize drug prices — at a panel Saturday in Dwinelle Hall.

If passed, Proposition 61 would tie prescription drug prices paid by certain state agencies to the discounted price that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays. The moderated debate was organized by Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, or UAEM, as part of its annual conference.

While Dan Johnston, research director for the California Nurses Association, argued that Proposition 61 addresses a pressing need for bold action to reduce drug prices, Kathy Fairbanks, a spokesperson for the “No On Prop 61” campaign said passing the measure could have unintended consequences for veterans and could result in higher drug prices for California or reduce access to medicine.

“Something needs to be done — the status quo is unsustainable,” Johnston said at the event about prescription drug prices. “It needs to change and it needs to change soon.”

The language of the initiative specifically would restrict state agencies from entering into purchasing contracts with drug manufacturers where the price is higher than the price the VA pays. The VA gets a 24 percent discount on drugs, per a federal mandate. While the measure, if passed, would not change this discount, Fairbanks said it could affect other discounts the VA negotiates with pharmaceutical companies on top of the 24 percent.

A large number of organizations across the state have come out against the proposition, Fairbanks noted during the debate.

“I understand people are frustrated (by drug prices),” Fairbanks said. “But the details matter.”

Ravi Doshi, co-president of Emory University’s chapter of UAEM, who attended the conference, said having grown up in Canada, he finds U.S. drug prices comparatively high.

“I find it ridiculous,” Doshi said, adding that Proposition 61 is necessary to combat high prices. Drug companies are able to afford giving state and federal governments better deals because the pharmaceutical industry is extremely lucrative, he added.

The measure exempts a large part of California’s largest health care program, Medi-Cal — which provides health coverage to low-income residents — from the pricing requirements.

Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has advocated heavily for Proposition 61, voicing support once again for the measure at a rally in San Francisco on Saturday.

Pharmaceutical companies have poured millions of dollars into campaigning against the measure, noted some of the audience members during a question and answer session of the panel.

Financial contributions to the measure’s opposition campaign totaled $70 million, making it the most expensive campaign for a state proposition this year.

Elections will take place Nov. 8.

Contact Suhauna Hussain at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @suhaunah.