Do Our Lawmakers Want to Hurt Hispanic Seniors?

By Dr. Yanira Cruz

Congressional lawmakers plan to use their multi-trillion-dollar reconciliation bill to make the biggest change to Medicare in generations. Specifically, they want the government to “negotiate” drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies, a move they claim will save hundreds of billions of dollars and make patients better off.

They’re only half right. A closer look at the bill reveals that these wouldn’t be “negotiations” in any meaningful sense of the word. Lawmakers intend to simply dictate the prices they’re willing to pay for medicines.

That would save money, of course — but only at the expense of patients’ health. Many other countries already employ this same approach. Their government officials achieve savings by rationing access to lifesaving medicines.

Seniors, especially older Hispanics, would be hardest hit by this rationing, since they disproportionately rely on Medicare prescription drug plans to stay healthy.

We don’t have to imagine what this limited access would look like: we already see it abroad. Almost 90% of the new drugs developed between 2011 and 2017 are available in the United States. But in Britain and France, where government officials determine which drugs should and shouldn’t be covered, only 67% and 48% are available, respectively. Where would you choose to be a patient?

Government price-setting would discourage drug companies from investing in new medicines, since firms would have no idea what price Medicare will pay for the drug – or if the medicine will even be covered at all. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that lawmakers’ current plan would prevent the creation of 60 new drugs over the next 30 years.

Other projections are even more dire. Tomas Philipson, an economist at the University of Chicago, warns the plan could stifle the development of up to 342 medicines that’d otherwise have reached patients over the coming two decades.

Imagine the heartache that would come from hearing about a promising new experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or cancer, only to learn that the federal government has placed it beyond reach. Are we really willing to treat the health of our seniors – our abuelos – in this manner?

While the last 18 months have been excruciating for all Americans, the pandemic has hit Hispanics particularly hard. They are more likely to be hospitalized — and more likely to die – from Covid-19.

They’re also at greater risk of chronic diseases. More than half of Hispanic Americans will eventually develop diabetes, compared to just 40% for the overall population, according to the CDC. Hispanics are also 23% more likely to suffer from obesity than whites. And they already have less access to physicians and mental health professionals.

The pandemic has taught us that our health systems are fragile, and disruptions can take an enormous toll. Making these massive changes to Medicare would end very badly for our seniors – even costing many of them their lives.

Dr. Yanira Cruz is the President and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA).

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