Legislators consider health care changes

BRIDPORT — Lawmakers explained legislation they’ve seen on reforming health care and regulating opioids when they spoke at the first legislative breakfast of 2017, held Monday at the Bridport Grange Hall.
On the health care front, Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, confirmed legislation proposing at make Vermont a “wholesaler” and therefore authorized to import prescription drugs from Canada.
“We know that drugs from Canada are safe — in fact a lot of the drugs we can buy for a third of the price or half of the price in Canada were made in the United States,” Ayer said.
The federal Affordable Care Act allows states to ask the federal government for permission to import cheaper drugs from Canada, according to Ayer. The bill would, among other things, require the state to identify a willing wholesaler from which to purchase drugs and calls for the Green Mountain Care Board to monitor savings realized through the new purchasing program.
While the bill makes sense to many in the House and Senate, Ayer predicted well-financed opposition from outside Vermont.
“Big pharma has a huge litigation budget, and most times it’s bigger than their research and development budget — and they spend it mostly on discouraging competition or any kind of encroachment on their (business),” Ayer said. “So I expect we will see them in court. But we’re going to try.”
Ayer also confirmed a bill that would allow for recycling some unopened drugs that end up not being used in residential care settings. These state-vetted drugs would then be sold at reduced prices to low-income patients — who might not qualify for Medicaid — according to Ayer.
She explained that some patients, when they get well or die, often leave large stocks of drugs that are currently discarded.
“A lot of other states do it,” Ayer said of repurposing unopened drugs. “It doesn’t save the state a lot of money, but hospitals, nursing homes and those kinds of places pay by the ton to … incinerate the drugs, so those drugs — which are perfectly useful — go up in the air.”
Under the new bill, the Vermont Department of Health would be asked to check out large reserves of unused drugs for potential reuse. Ayer said expired drugs, narcotics and/or medications requiring refrigeration would be excluded from the program.
Lawmakers pointed to the success of a recent Vermont law that regulates the amount of narcotic painkillers that can be prescribed by physicians. Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, cited a new report showing a 27-percent decline in opioids prescribed to Blue Cross-Blue Shield patients between 2013 and 2016.
“I would see that as a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel,” Lanpher said.
At the same time, Ayer warned that the state’s heroin problem is getting worse. Heroin is often cheaper and easier to acquire that prescription painkillers, she said.
“We moved on to something just as bad to deal with,” Ayer said.

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