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MY WORD

Celebrate vets by lowering drug prices

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Thanks to new leadership in Congress, a new vaccine against COVID-19 and front-line American workers, there was a lot more to celebrate this Independence Day than last year. As a veteran, I’m encouraged to see our country getting back on track and focus on the basics, like ensuring everyone has health care.

I served in the U.S. Army from 1979 until July 1982. I was injured during my service, and in 2002, I started to get health care through the Veterans Health Administration. The VHA is the nation’s largest integrated health system, providing care and services to millions of veterans every year. Although 60 percent of veterans are eligible for VHA services, like me, many don’t realize it right away or get coverage and services through private insurance or other sources.

I received care from the VHA in Salem, where I had back surgery, did physical therapy and got my prescription medicines for free. That health care has improved my quality of life. But a lot of veterans aren’t so lucky. They struggle with coverage and prescription drug affordability.

Lowering the price of prescription medicines is long overdue and thanks to examples like the VHA, there is already a roadmap for making it happen. President Biden pointed out earlier this year that we know how to address the problem: require price negotiations in Medicare. We already negotiate prices in many other government programs and agencies including the Department of Defense, Medicaid, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In fact, the federal government’s own research documents that thanks to price negotiations in these agencies drug prices are half of what those same drugs cost in Medicare Part D, where negotiations are prohibited.

The skyrocketing cost of prescriptions is a real danger to millions of Americans who need medicines but can’t afford them because lawmakers allow drug corporations to hike prices at will. Whether it’s new drugs like the Alzheimer’s treatment that just launched at $56,000 per year or insulin, which has been around for 100 years, drug corporations’ monopoly power to set and raise prices leaves Americans with no choice but to pay two to four times more for medicines in the United States than people in other countries. That’s not my idea of liberty.

As long as Congress does nothing to stop the drug corporations from raising their prices much faster than the rate of inflation, patients will continue to be hostages to prices they can’t afford. They will have no choice but to skip doses, go into debt to afford medicine or forgo treatment altogether. Veterans are no exception.

Two-thirds of veterans have private insurance and struggle with the same high premiums, out of pocket costs and deductibles and limitations that everyone else faces, but veterans are often in greater need of health services. Many have complex healthcare needs related to their service including musculoskeletal injuries, hearing loss and mental illnesses like depression and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Research shows that one in five U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan experience depression or PTSD.

Around 6% of veterans have no coverage, including an estimated 42,954 in Virginia. In states where Medicaid has not expanded like neighboring North Carolina, the numbers are bigger.

Prescription drug reform in Congress will help everyone, no matter where they get their health care. It’s popular: a majority of voters in both parties support the Medicare negotiations proposal in the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which would also extend the lower prices to people with private insurance. The Senate is considering policies that would similarly negotiate lower prices and extend them beyond Medicare. Both the House and Senate would hold drug corporations accountable for jacking up prices higher than the rate of inflation and would put caps on out-of-pocket costs. That is especially important for many veterans coming home—a third struggle to pay bills and access health care because of affordability.

In America, no one should be captive to drug corporation profits that deny us medicines. Congress has the power to lower drug prices now, and they should use it to stand up for patients and ensure we all get the health care we need.

The writer is a resident of Danville.

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