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Virginia legislators urge governor to sign prescription drug bill

RICHMOND, Va. (CN)—Virginia lawmakers and prescription drug affordability advocates on Tuesday urged the governor to sign legislation lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin has until April 8 to sign, veto or offer amendments to all bills passed through the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, including measures to establish a Prescription Drug Affordability Board. 

“Following November’s elections, Governor Youngkin said voters want to come together and find common ground,” state Senator Schuyler VanValkenburg said. “We in the legislature couldn’t agree more and that’s why we did find common ground on these measures.”

The board would be an independent body of health and medical experts meeting four times annually. The bill tasks the board to conduct an affordability review of all prescription drug products and report its findings to the General Assembly. 

The bill applies to state-sponsored and state-regulated health plans and health programs and obligates such policies to limit drug payment amounts and reimbursements to an upper payment threshold set by the board. 

“This legislation is a key step in lowering the cost of prescription drugs for all Virginians,” Freedom Virginia executive director Rhena Hicks said. “Medicine cannot do its job if you cannot afford it, and Virginians shouldn’t have to sacrifice their health to make ends meet.”

The lawmakers, two Richmond-area Democrats, emphasized the bipartisan support for the board at the conference. The bill did not enjoy as much universal support as advertised before the session, however, passing the House of Delegates 50-47 with only one Republican joining the yes side. In the state Senate, it passed 25-15 with five Republicans voting yes and one Democrat voting no. 

Opponents of the bill argue such measures would stifle innovation. Republican state Senator Bill Stanley co-patroned the Senate version of the bill along with Democrat Creigh Deeds, and penned an op-ed for regional news source Cardinal News defending the board. 

“Big Pharma’s frequent scare tactics also include threats to stop researching new medications or pull drugs from the market,” Stanely wrote. “They’ve been making these threats for decades, including in their fight to block the creation of generic drugs in 1984.”

Proponents of the board claim that, with the tens of billions of dollars large companies like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer Inc. make annually, they have more than enough money to continue exploring new medications. 

Pharmaceutical lobbyists argue pharmacy benefit managers, the third-party administrators of prescription drug programs, are to blame for high prices. 

“These boards have yet to prove to be anything more than a political scheme that fails to lower costs at the pharmacy counter. Passage of this legislation would allow for unelected bureaucrats to stand between patients and doctors, pick individual winners and losers, and potentially put Virginians’ health care on the chopping block while expecting them to foot the bill,” PhRMA spokeswoman Stami Williams said in a statement. “We commend Governor Youngkin’s thoughtful approach to this overreaching government price-setting bill and encourage him to continue addressing the root problems his constituents face — a broken insurance system that places the financial burden on patients and creates barriers to health care access across the state.” 

Richmond-based rheumatologist Harry Gewanter, president of the Virginia Society of Rheumatology, also submitted an op-ed to Cardinal News. He called the bill too good to be true and urged Youngkin to veto it. 

“PBMs determine a drug’s placement on formularies, whether there is a copay or coinsurance and how much, and what patients actually pay at the pharmacy counter,” Gewanter wrote. “While the manufacturers work to ensure their drugs are more available than their competitors’ products, it is the PBMs, not the drug manufacturers, who ultimately determine whether a drug is available for Virginians, and if so, how much patients pay.”

A 2016 study analyzing the profits of each step of the prescription drug supply chain estimates manufacturers netted two-thirds of the revenue for a total of $328 billion while the middlemen, the pharmacy benefit managers, account for only $23 billion in annual profit.

Savannah Morris, a Richmond area resident living with Crohn’s Disease, told reporters high prices have made her skip prescription refills, causing inflammation and debilitating symptoms. 

Morris isn’t the only person skipping dosages. KFF found in a 2023 poll that 1 in 4 Americans taking prescription drugs report difficulty affording their medication, while 3 in 10 reported not taking prescribed medicine due to steep prices.

The poll also found that 6 in 10 adults say they currently take at least one prescription drug, and a quarter say they currently take four or more.

According to a 2020 study by Altarum, Virginians spend less on health per capita than the rest of the country, including an average of $800 less on professional, physician, and clinical services. Still, Virginians spend an extra $400 on prescription drugs, equating to 36% more than the national average.

Should Youngkin sign the bill, Virginia would become the ninth state in the country to develop such a board, joining Colorado and Minnesota. 

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