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Md. drug board set to begin meetings next week

Former Maryland Secretary of Health Van Mitchell speaks Jan. 6, 2020 at the Maryland Prescription Drug Affordability Board meeting. (The Daily Record / Tim Curtis)

Former Maryland Secretary of Health Van Mitchell speaks Jan. 6, 2020 at a prescription drug forum. (The Daily Record / Tim Curtis)

ELLICOTT CITY — The Maryland Prescription Drug Affordability Board will hold its first meeting next week as the commission designed to find ways to reduce prescription drug prices in the state must also begin the mundane tasks of administration.

Van Mitchell, appointed by outgoing Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Adrienne Jones to serve as the board’s chair, said he hopes that in the board’s first few meetings it can tackle some easy topics, get to know each other and begin to hire a staff.

“For the board, it’s getting to know each other,” he said. “Nobody knows anybody.”

Mitchell, a former state secretary of health under Gov. Larry Hogan, is one of five members of the board. He also served as a Democrat in the General Assembly and has spent time as a lobbyist.

Ebere Onukwugha, an associate professor in the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy; George S. Malouf Jr., an ophthalmologist; Gerard F. Anderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hospital Finance and Management; and Joseph Levey, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, are the other board members.

Priority No. 1 for the board could be securing funding. This year it is being financed with $750,000 from the Maryland Health Care Commission.

But the commission will seek legislation to provide it with its own funding as it looks to begin to hire its own staff. Mitchell hopes to begin soliciting executive directors by the end of February.

The board was created last year under legislation passed by the General Assembly. It enjoyed support from members of both parties, and Hogan allowed it to become law without his signature.

Lawmakers for years have sought to regulate significant increases for some prescription drugs, particularly well-publicized price increases like a 400% price increase for Epi-Pens. A bipartisan group of Maryland county executives also backed the law last year, saying that drug prices for employees are eating up larger and larger portions of their budgets.

The Prescription Drug Affordability Board can seek approval in July 2021 to set upper payment limits for high-cost drugs purchased for state and local government employees as a pilot program.

Any limits would have to be approved by the Legislative Policy Committee, made up of every standing committee chair and party leader in the Senate and House of Delegates.

The board could go back to the full legislature in 2023 for permission to expand payment limits beyond just government employees.

Mitchell believes there could be some “low-hanging fruit” for the board to tackle.

“I was in the General Assembly when we did supplemental rebates,” he said. “I’d like to revisit that. I’d like to revisit Medicaid, because that’s a big driver. I think everything needs to be on the table, so that’s where we’ll start from.”

Mitchell also said several groups have already done significant work on drug pricing and that the board would hear from them, including the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services, the Department of Health and Human Services and Congress.

He also wants to hear from the pharmaceutical industry.

“Everybody will be at the table,” he said. “We have to come across to be able to present something that works, that’s going to work with everybody. … No sense in us trying to slam something through one way or the other and it doesn’t get anywhere.”

Mitchell also spoke Monday at a forum at the Ellicott City 50+ Center, one of a number of forums the board will participate in as it looks to hear from leaders and members of the community about the price of prescription drugs.

Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat representing the Baltimore area, said at the forum that Congress would be watching how the Maryland board worked.

“It is a national model,” he said. “As your drug affordability board does its work here, we will be borrowing on the lessons that you learn about how to address this very very important topic.”

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