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Wisconsin Lawmakers Urge State to Investigate Rising Drug Prices

Ann-Elise Henzl
Hashim Zaibak, president of the Hayat Pharmacy chain, says many drug prices rise at least 10 percent every year

There's a new plan in Wisconsin to cut the growing cost of prescription drugs. The idea involves having the state analyze drug prices to determine whether they're reasonable.

State Rep. Deb Kolste says there's a simple reason Wisconsin should investigate medicine prices.

"Drug costs are rising at a much faster pace than wages, inflation and even the rest of health care," she says.

The Janesville Democrat was one of two lawmakers unveiling a plan Tuesday, along with Robert Kraig of the advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Their idea attempts to get a handle on drug costs, by first investigating why they are rising. Kraig says the proposed legislation would demand that Gov. Scott Walker direct a state agency to look into prescription drug pricing.

"It actually asks the insurance commissioner's office to look at the costs of very high-value, important drugs and to look at whether the costs are excessive compared to what it costs to produce the drug, compared to what it sells for in other countries, looking at what they spend on marketing," Kraig says.

He says the next step would be recommending how to bring costs under control, perhaps by using the state's clout to negotiate prices. Kraig says other states are considering similar measures.

WUWM asked representatives of the pharmaceutical industry for reaction but did not hear back. But HashimZaibak, ​president of the Hayat Pharmacy chain in Milwaukee, thinks he knows what they would say. 

"They are investing a lot of money in the research and development of new medications. I mean, we are living longer, heathier, better quality of life because of the new medications that were introduced," he says.

Although Zaibak acknowledges that drug companies make big investments in new medicines, he adds, "on the other hand, can we as a country afford this continued increase in the cost of the medication?"

Zaibak took me behind the counter at the Hayat Pharmacy on 19th and North. About a dozen pharmacists and technicians were preparing orders. He says this is where workers first notice prices climbing.

"Basically, we come to the pharmacy one day, we check the price from the wholesale price and we see that increase. And of course our prices are based on our cost, so when the cost goes up, so the retail price goes up," Zaibak says.

And it's a serious issue, he says, because the price increases are big.

"With the brand name medications, it's very normal for us to see a minimum of 10 percent increase every year," Zaibak says.

During our visit, we didn't come across a customer struggling with high prices. But later we reached Bob Whitney, a Cudahy resident who needs a constant supply of insulin. Whitney is living on a fixed income. He says he's on Medicare Part D, which covers some benefits. But it also forces customers to pay full price for a time, before coverage kicks back in, a situation nicknamed the "donut hole."

"For the next three months, it's going to cost me over $1,000. It'll take me another $500 to get out of the donut hole," Whitney says.

Whitney says it's already tough for him to afford his insulin. If prices continue to rise, he's not sure he can keep up. "I really don't know what will happen. There's only so much (you can do), you know, to find the money," he says.

There won't be relief any time soon. The earliest potential vote on whether the state might investigate drug prices would be next year, when the Legislature is back in session.

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