Sheriff and pharmacist speak out for drug pricing transparency

OKEECHOBEE – Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen joined the staff of Okeechobee Discount Drugs on Feb. 13 for a press conference to call attention to the need for transparency in drug pricing in Florida.

Sheriff Stephen said he is concerned about the high cost of prescription drugs, especially for seniors who struggle to pay for the basic necessities of prescription drugs and food. “All too often, they have to choose one or the other,” he said.

He said as prescription drug prices rise, independent pharmacies struggle to stay in business while the middleman profits. The sheriff said that like other small businesses, independent pharmacies support their communities and care about their customers. The loss of any small business hurts the community, he said.

The sheriff encouraged voters to call on their Florida legislators to support greater transparency in drug pricing.

“We can no longer stand by and watch our patients and our state continue to be price gouged and played by these giant corporations whose first allegiance is to their shareholders,” said Steven Nelson, RPH and owner at Okeechobee Discount Drugs. “We – healthcare providers and our patients – have to take action if no one else will. We have to stand up and say we’re unwilling to watch our state healthcare system continue to be gamed by corporate analysts whose sole job is looking for loopholes to exploit. The fight is now personal.”

Mr. Nelson called for a special legislative session on prescription drug pricing reform.

He cited information from a new report recently released by 3 Axis Advisors, a data consultancy firm specializing in Medicaid claims analysis. The report, entitled “Sunshine in the Black Box of Pharmacy Benefits Management” is a comprehensive Florida Medicaid claims analysis that examined five years’ worth of Medicaid pharmacy data claims – more than 350 million de-identified claims obtained through the state’s Sunshine Law.

The Florida Medicaid claims analysis report uncovered several findings including differential drug pricing for the same medication at pharmacies that are very often within walking distance of each other; pricing certain medications very high relative to the acquisition costs, creating incentives for certain pharmacies to over-dispense the drugs; systematic patient steering to managed care organization (MCO) and pharmacy benefit manager (PBM)-owned or affiliated pharmacies, especially for higher-cost “specialty” medications typically prescribed for chronic diseases including cancer; and a system that ensures MCO- and PBM-owned/affiliated pharmacies receive the benefit of Florida’s $12 billion annual Medicaid spend.

He said under the current system, Medicaid reimburses the small, independent pharmacies less than the big chains for the same prescription drugs. Florida has already seen 167 pharmacies close their doors, he added.

“As a patient, my biggest concern every month is being able to afford my medications. As a Florida resident and taxpayer I’m upset that a publicly held corporation would think it could just come to our state and take advantage of us like that. We’re not accountants, we’re just everyday people who rely on the system to help us, not to exploit us,” said Brenda Fortner.

“We need to do more than just give lip service to the pricing and access issues that are currently running rampant here in Florida,” said Mr. Nelson. “Too many patients and small business pharmacies have been harmed already. Legislators need to take swift action now.”

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