You can’t put a price on ending AIDS

By Richard Zaldivar

Scientists at an International AIDS Society conference recently announced a hopeful discovery: early treatment reduces the rate of complications and death from HIV/AIDS by more than half compared to delayed treatment.

But rather than capitalize on this discovery by expanding access to treatment, lawmakers across the country are moving to cut off the development of new medicines by imposing price controls on lifesaving drugs.

For patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, sophisticated medicines can mean the difference between life and death. What’s more, today’s most effective drugs actually lower overall health costs by avoiding more expensive treatments and enabling patients to live long, productive lives.

Recent breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS treatments have been truly astonishing. Since the introduction of complex drug “cocktails” known as antiretroviral therapy (ART) in 1995, the death rate from the illness has plummeted by almost 85 percent.

ART can even prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. A 2011 study discovered that the therapy reduced the risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS from a sexual partner by as much as 73 percent.

All told, the treatment has prevented an estimated 862,000 premature deaths. For these hundreds of thousands of survivors, the treatment’s value is priceless.

Even with these breakthrough discoveries, policymakers around the nation are working to cap the price of such lifesaving medications. Some in Congress want to fundamentally change the Medicare Part D program, which provides prescription coverage to tens of millions of seniors and the disabled. The proposed changes would cap drug prices by empowering government officials to purchase medicines at below-market rates.

In Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, lawmakers have put forward legislation that would limit the cost of high priced drugs. Legislators here in California have advanced a similar bill, which would compel pharmaceutical companies to disclose their profits and expenses on pricy medications.

Lawmakers’ desire to reduce patients’ medical expenses is commendable. But discussions should focus on the broader issue of overall medical cost, not just prescription costs, to determine where we can achieve savings without reducing the ability of patients to achieve better health outcomes.

Put simply, imposing artificial limits on drug prices is counterproductive.

Consider the cost-saving potential of new treatments for hepatitis C. In 2011, hospitalization costs for hepatitis C patients totaled a staggering $35 billion.

Since then, drug companies have developed a slew of new hepatitis C medicines with cure rates approaching 100 percent. Though these treatments have high up-front price tags, researchers have determined that the treatments will ultimately avert $16 billion of medical spending by 2020.

Incentivizing the development of better treatments and cures saves money in the long-run. HIV/AIDS treatments have added $615 billion to the U.S. economy by avoiding medical spending and increasing productivity. Slapping price controls on medicines could prevent the development of medical breakthrough, such as the 44 new HIV/AIDS treatments that scientists are currently researching.

Lawmakers concerned about burdensome prescription bills could instead push insurers to expand coverage options. Currently, nearly a quarter of “silver” insurance plans require patients to pay at least 30 percent of the total cost of certain HIV/AIDS medications.

Such high cost-sharing can leave patients responsible for thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. If patients can’t afford to fill their prescriptions, they’ll become sicker and rack up higher healthcare bills.

We simply can’t hinder innovation by imposing price controls on current medicines. Instead, expanding treatment coverage and incentivizing the development of better medicines is the surest way to reduce long-term health care spending.

Richard Zaldivar is a founder of The Wall Las Memorias Project, a Latino HIV/AIDS advocacy group.

By Richard Zaldivar