New Mexico is hardly unique among states seeking to lower the cost of prescription drugs so individuals can afford necessary medications without going broke.
In the case of New Mexico, state Sen. Mary Kay Papen and state Rep. Debbie Armstrong, both Democrats, introduced legislation to authorize the Department of Health to develop a plan so that New Mexico can apply for federal approval to import drugs from Canada at wholesale costs. Senate Bill 1 passed the Senate and was making its way through the House this week.
The initiative falls under a new federal rule that gives states more control over lowering the costs of medicine. The federal government only will approve plans that guarantee the safety of these drugs and pass on cost savings to consumers. New Mexico is one of the first states — after Vermont, Maine, Colorado and Florida — to go this route.
For New Mexico residents, who often can’t pay for both living expenses and essential medicines, lowering drug costs could mean a better standard of living and eventually, lives saved. According to an AARP study, about 25 percent of New Mexico adults who take prescribed drugs stopped their medication in 2017 because of high costs. That’s a prescription for poor health, often for the people who least can afford it.
As Papen and Department of Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel wrote about the legislation: “In New Mexico, what is most frightening is that people who need their medication the most have the biggest difficulty paying for it. Our state has the third highest rate in the nation of people living at or below the federal poverty level. We need to do everything we can for New Mexicans to have access to lower-priced prescription drug medication.”
That states can do this can be credited to a December decision by the Trump administration to begin allowing states to import drugs wholesale from Canada under the Safe Importation Action Plan — this is a worthy step to ensure people can afford at least some of the medicine they need.
More must be done, of course, as the cost of health care continues to escalate. Also being considered in the session is House Bill 100, which would allow the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange — the health insurance marketplace for individuals — more autonomy to help poor and uninsured residents find health care coverage.
This legislation — sponsored by Armstrong and by Rep. Micaela Cadena — is designed to help New Mexico’s exchange be more independent as it works to meet its goals — making affordable insurance possible, assisting the 180,000 or so people without coverage to receive it and ensuring plans that work in all areas of the state.
So much attention on bills designed to make prescriptions and access to health care affordable shows again the need for comprehensive adjustments to the U.S. health care system.
The Affordable Care Act — continually under attack by President Donald Trump — allowed more people to receive coverage, eliminated preexisting conditions and helped young adults be covered under their parents’ insurance. While not perfect, the landmark law would be working more smoothly without constant attempts to weaken it by a president who has no smart replacement. And the debate in the Democratic presidential primary over whether all adults should be able to buy into Medicare shows just how much the cost of health care is weighing on voters.
This is a bipartisan, national concern. Just look at how Utah is saving money on health care. The state government isn’t bothering to import prescriptions, at least not yet. Instead, an insurer is paying for plane tickets for state employees to fly to Mexico so they can buy a year’s worth of prescriptions. Even with just 10 employees in the program, according to reports in The Guardian newspaper, the insurer is saving about $225,000 in a year.
All of which goes to show is that states and their residents can refuse to allow the costs of health care to bankrupt them. Let states negotiate for cheaper, imported drugs. Give the insurance authority autonomy to make the system work better. And, yes, even send folks out of the country to buy prescriptions.
But realize that is not enough. Some day — soon, we hope — Americans will find the will to work across party lines in Congress to ensure every American has access to quality, affordable health care. Until then, states and individuals must try and make do.