Briana Heaney Published

Senate Pushes Back On Big Pharma

Close up of an older woman's hands taking pills out of a bottle.Fizkes/Adobe Stock

Drug manufacturers have been pushing back at a three-decade-old federal law that helps low and middle income patients get prescription drugs. The state Senate passed a bill Wednesday to combat this trend.

Under the federal 340 B program, health care providers like hospitals and community health centers that fit certain criteria, like being a public or nonprofit organization with a high volume of low income or uninsured patients, can get medicines at a discounted rate. 

This allows them to sell the medicines at a discounted rate to low income or uninsured patients and provides extra money to help those patients. Those health care institutions are known in the program as safety net providers.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Tom Takubo, R- Kanawha, said this program is for patients who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to be able to afford often expensive prescriptions. 

“What this program really does is helps those that are trying to climb out of poverty but they don’t qualify for Medicaid. And they’re trying to afford their medicines, and they have real health problems,” Takubo said. 

Pharmacies are able to participate in the 340B program by way of being contract pharmacies of the safety net providers. This is especially important in rural areas where some of those safety net providers are hours away. 

In 2020, manufacturers started implementing restrictions on contract pharmacies.

For example, if a safety net provider ordered insulin for its contracted pharmacies, drug manufacturers would refuse to send the insulin to the rural pharmacies. 

Drug manufacturers argue that the increase in use of the program has affected their ability to invest in research for new drugs. A study from Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, found that many pharmaceutical companies spend more on marketing than on new drug research. 

“About a year or so ago, big pharma decided, ‘Well, we haven’t made enough profit,’” Takubo said. 

Senate Bill 325 seeks to challenge the restrictions by forcing them to ship to rural contract pharmacies or impose a $50,000 fine per order for failing to do so. 

Takubo said this bill will help thousands of rural West Virginians who need affordable prescriptions. 

“They (drug manufacturers) never argued that these patients don’t qualify for a federal program that’s been around for 30 years. The only thing they said is now you’ve got to drive 60 to 90 miles to go get it,” Takubo said. “We know that the federal program allows you to get your much needed medicines to literally keep you alive. These are sometimes cancer therapies and blood pressure and diabetes.”

He said that some rural populations can’t afford to drive long distances or cross state lines to procure discounted prescriptions that are no longer available to them in their communities.