ITHACA, N.Y. — In a visit Friday to Ithaca, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced new legislation intended to bring down prescription drug prices.

The high cost of prescription drugs is a concern Gillibrand said she has heard from constituents across the state. Many people have to make hard choices to afford their medication.

“For a lot of people, they can’t afford it,” Gillibrand said. “They’re literally making decisions about ‘Do I pay my rent? Do I pay for heat? or Do I pay for my pharmaceuticals?”

Gillibrand is introducing legislation called the “Stop Price Gouging Act” that would penalize pharmaceutical companies who “engage in excessive, unjustified price increases.”

“We have a bill to crack down on price gouging to make sure that these providers can’t do it, and if they do we penalize them, we take 100 percent of the profits,” Gillibrand said. “That’s how you say ‘We’re not going to allow price gouging.’”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand answers questions Friday at Lifelong. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand answers questions Friday at Lifelong. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

The legislation would require pharmaceutical companies to report any increases in the price of their products, as well as the justification for any increases that exceed medical inflation to the Health and Human Services Inspector General and the public, a news release states. It would also impose a tax penalty on companies that engage in these practices, and instruct the Government Accountability Office to study how drug manufacturers establish initial launch prices and suggest best practices. It would also reinvest penalties collected from companies into future drug research and development.

Gillibrand is also co-sponsoring other bills in the works related to drug prices.

Another thing that needs to change, Gillibrand said, is that Medicare is legally not allowed to negotiated drug prices. She said she wants Medicare to be able to buy in bulk and get the lowest prices.

She also said people should be able to buy safe drugs from Canada. The “Affordable Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act” would create two pilot programs to import prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.

Gillibrand and others who spoke at the event at Lifelong shared stories of people who have gone deep into debt to afford their medication and others who have died because they could not afford expensive medications.

Harriet London, a volunteer counselor helping Medicare recipients, shared the story of a woman who was diagnosed with cancer at 61 that was treated with a pill that costs $15,000 per dose. When she went on Medicare two years later, as part of a program she was able to get the price of the drug to drop to $750 per month. Because she was only 63 when she switched from her previous insurance, she wasn’t eligible for EPIC, a program that helps seniors who are 65 and older supplement drug plan costs. To help cover the cost, she began applying for grants.

“She worked, she applied to foundations, got a grant to pay for a few months of the drug,” London said. “But this drug may not work forever and she’s going to be back in the same situation.”

Gillibrand said she hopes people who have experienced difficulty affording prescription drugs share their stories.

“I hope you all do speak out because the truth is nothing ever works in Washington until regular people stand up and demand it, and that means taking on the drug companies,” Gillibrand said.

CLARIFICATION (9:02 a.m. Monday) — Edited to clarify that the woman who did not qualify for EPIC did not qualify because she was younger than 65.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.