Mercury News: Vote no on prescription drug measure

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It takes more than good intentions to make a ballot measure worth passing.

There are good reasons to be outraged at drug pricing by Big Pharma, which sets prices partly from a need to recover research costs but sometimes out of just plain greed. Proposition 61 proposes an answer, at least for state purchases for Medi-Cal: Prohibit the state from paying more for prescription drugs than the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which generally pays about 25 percent less than other government agencies.

But nobody can say definitively how this proposition would play out, or how it would affect the availability of some life-saving drugs. Don’t take a chance. Vote no on Prop. 61.

Prop 61 is loaded with unknowns, but here’s one sure thing: If it passes, Big Pharma will do everything can to keep it from working as promised. Otherwise, every state will adopt a similar law.

The simplest way to do that would be to negotiate higher prices for veterans’ prescriptions drugs. A VA analysis concludes that Prop 61 could cost veterans $3.8 billion more every year. No wonder every significant veterans organization in the state opposes the ballot measure.

Consumers Union and Health Access, two of the leading proponents of reining in prescription drug prices in California, have both taken a neutral position on Prop 61.

The other thing pharmaceutical companies could do is simply raise the prices for drugs not bought by the VA to offset its losses. Or it could decide not to offer some of the drugs that the VA currently buys, knowing that if the state cannot readily obtain drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for beneficiaries, California could fall out of compliance with Medi-Cal guidelines and suffer a loss of federal matching funds.

The independent California Legislative Analyst’s Office, in two separate studies, reported that “the fiscal impact (of Prop. 61) is still uncertain, and that it was “unable to come up with a reasonable estimate of the measure’s potential fiscal impact on state costs for prescribed drugs.”

And even if Prop. 61 reduced prices for state-insured residents, it would only help 12-15 percent of Californians. It doesn’t apply to anyone covered by private insurance, which includes about 50 percent of the state’s population. Prop. 61 also specifically “exempts purchases of prescription drugs under managed care programs funded through Medi-Cal,” which applies to another 25 percent of Californians.

We sympathize with the goal of this proposition. Legislators have fought for years to make the pricing of prescription drugs more transparent, so that at least the reasons are clear — which might force companies to price more reasonably. Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, and Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, tried to shed sunshine on the reasons for skyrocketing prices, but both failed to gain traction.

The fight to bring sanity to drug pricing should continue, but this proposition is not the answer. Vote no on Prop. 61.