Commentary: Older moms paved the way for health care savings from the Inflation Reduction Act

On a rainy summer morning in 1999, a group of older miners boarded a charter bus in Portland, heading to Quebec for an unusual shopping spree. At a pharmacy in Montreal, they purchased basic prescriptions for a fraction of their cost in Maine. This was not the first such expedition, nor would it be the last. What made this trip more extraordinary was that Mike Wallace and the 60 Minutes news crew came to cover it. Activism by older Mainers that began a quarter-century ago paved the way for key health care provisions in President Biden’s historic Inflation Reduction Act that expand coverage and affordability for millions of Americans, including tens of thousands of Mainers.

Viola “Vee” Quirion, left, of Waterville boards a bus in Waterville in 2002 to travel with other seniors to Canada to buy cheap prescription drugs. A retired factory worker who spends a quarter of her income on her medication, Quirion has become a dedicated activist and spokesperson for efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs. David Leaming/Morning Watch, file

The new law extends help for lower insurance premiums to about 59,000 Maine residents covered by the Affordable Care Act. The bill also caps Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs at $2,000 a year. Finally, the new law also allows Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs, one of the sensible cost-cutting measures these bus carriers advocate.

Historically, pharmaceutical manufacturers have negotiated lower prices with large wholesale customers — insurance companies, managed care organizations, state Medicaid programs and even certain federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs. For decades, these companies, through PhRMA, their powerful lobby, have spent hundreds of millions of their billions in profits to deny the same bargaining tool to their biggest customer, Medicare.

In February 1998, at a constituent forum in Sanford on Medicare and Social Security, Leon Currier, a retired firefighter, urged then-freshman U.S. Rep. Tom Allen to focus on rising drug prices. Currier’s doctor prescribed a drug costing $100 a month, so expensive that he decided not to take it. The next day, Allen directed his staff to study options and recommend actions to provide relief to Currier and the millions of older Americans struggling to pay for needed medications.

As a member of the House Committee on Government Reform, Allen shared his concerns with ranking member Henry Waxman. Committee staff proposed conducting a study comparing the over-the-counter prices that older Mainers in the 1st Congressional District pay for their medications with those drug companies contracted with “beneficial customers.”

Published in July 1998, the study found that older Mainers paid more than twice as much for their drugs on average. Subsequently, House members from districts across the country commissioned surveys based on Allen’s model, with similar results. Additional follow-up studies—comparing the prices uninsured Mainers pay for drugs with prices in Canada and Mexico—confirm that prices in both are a fraction of what Mainers pay.

On September 28, 1998, Allen introduced the Elderly Prescription Drug Fairness Act, the first law to give Medicare the power to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare recipients. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy subsequently introduced the bill in the Senate. Republican House leaders have refused to hold hearings or allow a vote on the bill. Allen reintroduced the bill in subsequent sessions, eventually attracting 153 co-sponsors.

Meanwhile, stories from older Maine residents continue to pour in not just for Allen, but for other Maine federal and state lawmakers. One wrote: “I don’t want my husband to know but I stopped taking my meds so we can afford his.” Another wrote: “I’m cutting my pills in half so they last longer before I have to pay for another prescription.’

Viola “Vee” Quirion, a retired factory worker in Waterville, spent a quarter of her $900-a-month income on medication to treat arthritis, a stomach ailment and eventually cancer. Despite her serious health problems, she became a dedicated activist and speaker. She was a passenger on that bus ride in 1999. She shared her story with Mike Wallace and millions of viewers across the country. Quirion also traveled to Washington for a press conference with Rep. Allen to rally support for his bill.

John Marvin had organized this bus trip as the regional director of the National Council on Aging. He later worked with Chelly Pingree, then a state senator from North Haven, on statewide price-fixing legislation. PhRMA challenged Pingree’s Maine Rx legislation to the US Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in Maine’s favor. Pingree later succeeded Allen as U.S. Representative for the 1st District. Grateful older Mainers dedicated a wing of an Augusta seniors’ residence in Marvin’s memory.

PhRMA has continued to block Medicare price bargaining since both the 2006 legislation establishing Part D prescription drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries and the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

President Biden’s Inflation Relief Act, supported by Reps. Maine Pingree and Jared Golden and Sen. Angus King, finally crushed PhRMA’s crusade against price negotiations. As a result, both Medicare beneficiaries and US taxpayers will realize hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings.

As we celebrate this legislation, remember Leon Currier, Vi Quirion, John Marvin and so many other outspoken older Mainers whose activism helped pave the way for this epic achievement. And let’s follow their lead as we continue to expand coverage and lower health care costs for all Americans.

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