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Olszewski discusses Prescription Drug Affordability Initiative with board members

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PARKVILLE — Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski joined a panel of lawmakers and Maryland Prescription Drug Affordability Board members at Oak Crest Senior Living Community on Feb. 18 to hear from the public about the burden of paying for their prescription medications.

U.S. Representative John Sarbanes, D-3, AARP representative Jim Gutman, Maryland’s Citizens’ Health Initiative President Vincent DeMarco and Maryland Prescription Drug Affordability Board member Dr. Ebere Onukwugha, along with Olszewski, led the second public forum in a series of events around the state.

The Maryland Prescription Drug Affordability Board, established in 2019 by Maryland legislatures, is beginning its work by reviewing drug costs in the state and hearing public concerns about the affordability of medications. The Board began its work earlier this year and consists of five members.

The five-member board includes: Van Mitchell, a former state Health Secretary, Dr. Onukwugha, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Health Services Research at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, Dr. George S. Malouf Jr., an ophthalmologist and leader of MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, Professor Gerard F. Anderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hospital Finance and Management, and Johns Hopkins Professor Joseph Levy.

“Tonight is the second in a series of events like this we’re doing around the state to highlight Maryland’s landmark new Prescription Drug Affordability Board enacted in 2019,” DeMarco said. “We’re the first in the country to do this and it’s very exciting. We’re going to talk to you about the board, what it is and more importantly, on behalf of the board, we’re going to hear from you about how high cost prescription drugs are a problem for you or your family members to help inform the board in its work to do something about this serious problem.”

Sarbanes said he knows that the issue of prescription drug costs is something that makes so many families in America feel powerless.

“The most compelling and heart-wrenching stories that we get has to do with the impact of the high cost of prescription drugs. One out of every three Americans are not taking their prescriptions as prescribed because they’re trying to make them last longer because of the cost. That’s not right,” Sarbanes said.

Olszewski said as him and his administration travel around Baltimore County, they know the need for affordable prescription drugs is “real.”

“Many people are being forced to choose between the ability to have prescription drugs and buying groceries or paying rent, and it’s just unconscionable that in a country as prosperous as ours, that we’re forcing you and others to make those decisions,” Olszewski said.

One thing Olszewski said he has learned in his year-plus as County Executive is the best thing he can do in his position is listen to the people that are impacted.

“One out of every four Baltimore County residents are seniors, so listening to people in our community, listening to our seniors is very important for me as the County Executive,” he noted.

According to Gutman, AARP has 870,000 members in Maryland and a big part of their non-partition initiative is to make sure that people aged 50 and older can have both health and financial security.

“That relates every bit to prescription drugs. When we survey our members, as we do frequently, the high prices of prescriptions drugs come always in the top three, sometimes in the top two among the issues that most concern them. We’re thrilled that Maryland has taken the lead among so many states in doing something that eventually will help all parts of Maryland,” Gutman said.

Before the attendees began discussing their concerns, Sarbanes explained a couple things he and others are trying to do in Washington D.C., which include HR 3, the “Elijah Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act,” named after the late Baltimore City politician.

“He was a champion on this issue, which would allow the federal government through the Medicare program to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies. It would put a cap on out-of-pocket expenses for seniors, which would alleviate a lot of the burden of the cost of these drugs,” Sarbanes said.

At the event, attendees were curious as to how the issue of affording prescriptions affects them, when they can already afford their health needs.

“If we’re able to get prescription drug plans without a problem, that would make a big impact on our understanding it. I want to be helpful and I want to understand how to understand the issue to give a response. How can we relate to this issue, if we have the benefit of being able to get prescription drugs,” Oak Crest Senior Living Community resident Diana Jones asked.

Dr. Onukwugha replied and said that although you might not have an issue one year with healthcare affordability, with time and new prescription needs, cost may change and then become an issue.

Oak Crest Senior Living Community resident Joanne Stevenson said if prescription drug coast can be reduced for one person, in essence the cost is reduced for everybody.

“It is tremendously important if Medicare can finally do competitive bidding, which does make a great deal of sense,” Stevenson noted.

Dr. Onukwugha said she is pleased to be serving on such an important board and looks forward to continuing to hear from Marylanders about how drug prices are affecting their financial well-being.

“Our full board will carefully consider what we hear from the public as we discuss plans for our work to make drugs more affordable,” Onukwugha said.

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