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Guest opinion

'New NAFTA' does nothing to lower prescription drug costs for seniors

Arizona has been a destination for retirees for half a century, and every year more and more seniors move to our state as the Baby Boomer generation leaves the workforce. It's not hard to understand why: the sun is always shining, and we have a much lower cost of living than neighboring states like California. But as our state ages, public policy issues that are relevant to older voters should be much more relevant to our elected representatives. The high cost of prescription drugs is a huge issue for all Arizonans, and especially for retired Arizonans. But if Congress approves the newly negotiated NAFTA in its current form, the problem could be made even worse.

Spending on pharmaceutical drugs was $480 billion in 2016, amounting to an average of nearly $7,000 per Arizona resident that year. This is part of an upward trend; since 1980, the percentage of healthcare dollars spent on prescription drugs has doubled. Seniors, who take more prescription drugs than other age groups, bear the brunt of this, paying more and more every month, despite usually relying on a fixed income. This is simply unsustainable.

Unfortunately, provisions in the new NAFTA, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, could reduce competition and do nothing to lower prices, or worse, drive up prices for American patients. The Alliance for Retired Americans, which represents retired union members across the United States, sent a letter recently along with the AARP and others to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, noting that the "trade agreement, if left in its current form, will keep drug prices high in the United States, to the detriment of our nation's patients, job creators, workers, and taxpayers."

The letter called out restrictions on biosimilars, which are off-patent alternate versions of expensive biologic drugs, as a particular problem for patients in all three countries who need access to lower-cost drugs. Some of the most popular (and most expensive) biologic drugs treat rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative vision loss, and other conditions that disproportionately affect seniors. These brand-name drug companies already have a legal monopoly on their products, protecting their profits for years. Limiting competition even further would hurt the people who need help the most.

Fortunately, the new trade deal has not been approved by Congress yet, and there's still time to change it. In 2007, a deal was negotiated between the Bush Administration and the Democratic House of Representatives that improved access to medicines, and the same thing could be done to revise the USMCA. Ann Kirkpatrick, our new congresswoman who had stood for fairer trade deals for workers and patients in the past, should be a strong advocate for improving this agreement.

Drug prices are already high enough, and seniors have said repeatedly that financial security and expensive health care are the issues that most affect their daily lives. We need Rep. Kirkpatrick's leadership in Washington to make sure that smart policy which benefits all Arizonans becomes a reality, instead of a missed opportunity.

Henry Trejo is a retired steelworker for Broken Hills Property and is a vice president of the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans.

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