Underwood gets to work on prescription drug cost relief

Constituents don't call congresswoman Lauren Underwood's West Chicago office to ask what she's doing to get the Mueller report released. They call because their prescription drugs cost so much, they end up in the emergency room when they can't afford to fill their prescriptions and see their doctors until they meet their deductibles.

Underwood told constituents at a town hall in Warrenville this week she wants to see the full, unedited Mueller report, but her primary focus is delivering on campaign promises. As a nurse, she believes her constituents elected her, in part, to use her expertise to make a positive impact on health care. She's targeting sustainable, lower prescription drug prices with her early policy efforts.

"There is not a magic bill that's already been sitting on the shelf waiting for us to vote on," Underwood told the audience. "We have so many companies in Chicagoland that do this important (research) work. We don't want to limit their ability to bring drugs to market because we are trying to make it more affordable for consumers."

There are multiple approaches to making that happen, she said. Giving Medicare the ability to negotiate prescription drug prices like the Veterans Affairs is back on the table after being negotiated off during the formation of the Affordable Care Act. Increasing competition for generic drugs and slimming down the regulatory process to get new medications to market faster are also being discussed. While there is much focus on Medicare and Medicaid, Underwood said drug costs must be addressed for all Americans. That includes the large percentage of people on employer-sponsored health insurance.

Underwood said she is zeroing in on how to make a list of about 50 "maintenance medications" more affordable or free during the gap when patients have yet to meet their insurance deductible. That gap can last as long as three months, she said. The medications include drugs like insulin, medication to lower cholesterol and pills to control blood pressure.

While states like Florida, Colorado and Vermont pursue creation of a prescription drug import pipeline from Canada, Underwood said she's focused on the existing federal systems. Congress plays a major role in funding research and development of new drugs. That funding is leverage in discussions with drug companies, she said.

"It's important we negotiate directly and incent the drug manufacturers and those intermediaries that work with the drug companies to negotiate the rebates to get the best deal for the consumer," Underwood said in an interview. "Insulin has had a spike that is outrageous. It's like $2,500 a month. That's not affordable for most Americans. We need to make drugs cheaper, yes, but that also includes sustainability. We need to make sure it's not cheaper for six months and then we have some unintended consequences that makes it even worse than where we started."