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Originally published May 1, 2013 at 4:55 PM | Page modified May 1, 2013 at 4:54 PM

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Guest: Give Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices

Congressional leaders could reduce the cost of the Medicare program by giving Medicare the authority to negotiate prescription-drug prices, according to guest columnists Robert T. Smithing and Madeline D. Wiley.

Special to The Times

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WE are family nurse practitioners and for the past 27 years we have been caring for patients in our family practice in Kent. Over that time we have seen thousands of patients struggle to pay for their medications and care. Our patients on Medicare have especially had a hard time since Medicare Part D went into effect.

Congressional leaders digging in on a contentious budget debate could profoundly reduce prescription-drug prices and the overall cost of the Medicare program by giving Medicare the authority to negotiate prescription-drug prices. Making this change would save so much money, it would not be necessary to cut Medicare benefits or to raise the eligibility age to keep Medicare solvent in the future.

A recently published report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research indicated that savings to the federal government over the next decade could be as high as $541.3 billion if the Medicare program could negotiate prescription-drug prices. The saving to Washington state could be between $522 million and $1.2 billion over the same time period.

This is not a radical idea. The Department of Veterans Affairs already does it. Medicaid does it. In both these cases the government has negotiated lower prescriptions costs than Medicare Part D.

Medicare, on the other hand, leaves it to private insurance companies to negotiate prices with the drugmakers. In fact, the Medicare Part D law forbids the government from negotiating directly with drug companies for lower prices.

Congress has the opportunity to reduce costs for all consumers, bringing prices down from their inflated rate. The high cost of drugs has left seniors to choose between paying for medication and paying their utility bill.

Congressional leaders still won’t do it. Even President Obama’s recent budget proposal leaves hard negotiations off the table.

It makes us wonder why the government has abandoned our patients and millions more while the top 12 pharmaceutical companies raked in $49.3 billion in profit alone in 2012. Many of our patients survive on meager fixed incomes in the range of $22,000 per year. The top 10 pharmaceutical industry chief executives made $200 million in 2011.

The problem is seniors, our patients, don’t have the toughest negotiator on their side.

We became nurse practitioners to keep people healthy, to treat health conditions from the common cold to broken limbs and life-threatening illnesses. It is estimated that the Medicare program will serve just over a million individuals in Washington state in 2013. That number grew about 22 percent over 10 years and will grow even more as baby boomers reach retirement age.

Our patients need more-affordable, less-inflated prices for their medications.

This issue affects all taxpayers, not just seniors on Medicare Part D. All taxpayers are subsidizing the inflated cost of prescription drugs. Congress needs to check its moral compass and stand with the seniors we serve day in and day out.

Robert T. Smithing, left, is clinical director and Madeline D. Wiley is managing partner of FamilyCare of Kent.

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