A bill intended to reign in the rising costs of prescription drugs is once again drawing opposition from Big Pharma and conservative advocacy groups. During a panel discussion on proposed legislation limiting major price increases for prescription drugs Tuesday, state Rep. Matt Soper (R-Delta) said a “price-setting” board is a “leading priority” of Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO).

Soper was referring to proposed legislation, introduced Monday by Democrats and supported by Polis, that would create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board (PDAB), composed of non-partisan experts to investigate cost increases of some prescription drugs and set limits on how much prices could be raised.

A PDAB would address only the highest-cost medications, leaving drug companies and purchasers to continue negotiating rates for the vast majority of prescription drugs, as they do now.

A screenshot from the AFP-Colorado panel.

“The other thing we’re going to hear about is a price-setting board,” Soper said during the panel, hosted by Americans for Prosperity (AFP) Colorado, a conservative organization funded by the Koch brothers. “It’s replicating what Europe has, I’m scared to death of it, to tell you the truth … because we could definitely see that it would have a chilling effect both on innovators, drug entrepreneurs, and the free market.”

Advocates for the PDAB say it’s a false tradeoff to argue, as Soper does, that innovation is stifled by price controls that increase the accessibility of medications. They point to research that innovation and accessibility are not mutually exclusive and that the free market is not the sole reason for pharmaceutical innovation in the U.S. A PDAB attempts to move towards a system that is both innovative and accessible.

According to the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative (CCHI), a progressive health advocacy group, one in three Coloradans struggle to afford the prescription drugs they need, and 77% of registered voters in the state would support the creation of a PDAB.

State Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis (D-Boulder), a pharmacist and the prime sponsor of the legislation, emphasized how inequitable the current system is while speaking at a press conference Monday.

“As prescription drug costs continue to skyrocket, people are forced to make impossible choices,” said Jaquez Lewis. “This proposal—this group of non-partisan experts—has the potential to save Coloradans as much as 75% on the most unaffordable drugs. We have no choice but to address this issue—we absolutely must get this under control, so we can build a healthy Colorado for all.”

The high cost of prescription drugs causes Coloradans to skip doses, stretch the length of their prescriptions, and/or delay filling their prescriptions, according to Colorado Rep. Chris Kennedy (D-Lakewood), another sponsor of the PDAB legislation.

Despite bipartisan public support, the PDAB legislation will likely be opposed by drug manufacturers, as well as their lobbying groups, the Colorado Bioscience Association (CBSA), which represents bioscience companies in the state, and the national group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

Statement from Emily Roberts, CBSA Vice President

In Colorado and other states, when legislation is introduced to control drug prices, pharmaceutical companies often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against the bills. A 2020 study found that Big Pharma and drug industry groups have spent $6 billion lobbying politicians in the U.S. since 2000.

In 2019, for example, they fought a bill making Colorado the first state to limit insulin prices.

Katelin Lucariello, Director of State Policy for PhRMA’s Rocky Mountain Region, was present at the AFP-Colorado panel Tuesday.

“[A PDAB] is really, really concerning for innovation, because when we look at countries… who have strict limits on drug prices they see fewer new drugs to market,” Lucariello said at the panel discussion. “Manufacturers are less willing to invest in the R&D that’s needed to bring new developments to market. And then patients that could have benefited from that innovation lose that opportunity.”

CCHI Deputy Director Adam Fox responds in part by pointing out that the same prescription drugs in Europe are far cheaper than in the U.S.

“Coloradans are paying 65 to 85 percent more than people in other countries for the same drugs,” said Fox. “We know pharmaceutical companies still make a profit in those countries or they wouldn’t be selling their drugs in those markets. We can lower the costs of the most unaffordable drugs with a Prescription Drug Affordability Board and we can save Coloradans money. We hope legislators will listen to the voices of Colorado families and to Colorado voters—and not to the scare tactics of the powerful PhRMA lobby.”

In response to the innovation argument, opponents also point out that more of the biggest pharmaceutical companies’ budgets go toward marketing and sales than R&D, according to research from 2019.

Nick McGee is a Senior Director of Public Affairs at PhRMA and called for common-sense policies instead of a PDAB in Colorado.

“Creating a board of unelected bureaucrats with the authority to arbitrarily decide what medicines are worth and what medicines patients can get would be a disaster for patients,” McGee said in a statement to the Colorado Times Recorder. “While Colorado policymakers are attempting to brand this government board as a way to make medicines more affordable, there is no guarantee that the policy would provide any sort of meaningful savings for patients. Even more, in practice, this policy could make it more difficult for individuals to access the medicines they need now and, in the future, and could lead to discrimination against seniors, those with disabilities, and the chronically ill. Now, more than ever, Coloradoans should have affordable access to the health care they need. Rather than focusing on dangerous policies that could jeopardize patients’ access and future innovation, policymakers should pursue common-sense policies that would put savings directly in patients’ hands.”

Currently six states have enacted legislation to create a PDAB.

At Monday’s news conference, Polis was effusive in his praise for legislators who are taking the issue of prescription drug prices seriously.

“Prescription drugs cost too much and Coloradans are sick and tired of being ripped off. This bill is an important step toward our goal of saving people money on health care,” said Polis. “I want to thank the bill sponsors for their efforts to ensure that hardworking Coloradans can get the medicine they need for themselves and their families without worrying about astronomical costs.”

Kris Garcia, a Coloradan with multiple bleeding disorders, including hemophilia, supports the creation of a PDAB. Garcia said he has to be incredibly careful because of how any emergency can quickly turn into a health and financial crisis.

“To manage my bleeding disorders, I rely on a medication called Humate-P,” Garcia said. “Each vial of Humate-P costs $10,000 — and I require 4 vials of this drug every time I get an infusion. And this shocking price is for just one of the many drugs I need. The toll of having a medical condition like this is taxing enough; the financial burden only makes such a situation more stressful. I shouldn’t have to live in constant fear of financial ruin to my family just because of drug costs.”

The PDAB bill has been introduced in the Colorado Senate and awaits a hearing in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.