The disproportionate toll of the coronavirus pandemic on communities of color has forced our nation to reckon with disparities that have long predated COVID-19
Last month, the National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC) and West Health held a virtual Hill briefing exploring the link between the high cost of drugs and health inequities on March 18, 2021. The briefing explored a range of systemic issues that drive health inequities for communities of color, including drug prices, coverage gaps, and COVID-19 recovery.
“The disproportionate toll of the coronavirus pandemic on communities of color has forced our nation to reckon with disparities that have long predated COVID-19,” remarked keynote speaker Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D-IL). For example, Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die due to pregnancy related complications compared to white mothers. Disproportionate rates of asthma in Hispanic children, diabetes in American Indian and Alaskan Native adults, and cancer in Asian Islanders are signs of health disparities that must be addressed. Today, this is reflected in unjustly high counts of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and death rates in communities of color.
Congressman Steven Horsford (D-NV)’s concluding remarks highlighted how people of color have been affected by COVID-19 because they are largely on the front lines of the virus. He shared that “data on vaccine hesitancy and prescription drug costs reinforce what we already know; health disparities and historic racism in our medical system are making it harder to crush COVID-19”.
Adults of color in non-expansion states are 88% more likely to suffer 12-month medication insecurity.
The latest data on access to prescription drugs vividly illustrate these disparities. West Health released new findings from their January poll on drug accessibility and costs, in collaboration with Gallup. Tim Lash, Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President of West Health showed that many families are facing tradeoffs they should not have to make: 4 in 10 households with at least one prescription reported skipping pills. While high prices of drugs have affected all populations, West Health noticed a higher rate of skipping pills in communities of color, notably Hispanic adults.
The survey also found that drug costs impact communities of color in states that have not expanded Medicaid the most – in fact, adults of color in non-expansion states are 88% more likely to suffer 12-month medication insecurity. Further, the number of seniors dying because they cannot afford their medication illustrates the toxic effect of high prescription drug cost. West Health found that 120,000 Medicare beneficiaries die annually from medication non-adherence. Therefore, even those with health coverage are at risk of poor health outcomes due to high costs.
Importantly, the West Health poll confirmed earlier research by Kaiser Family Foundation that addressing high drug costs is popular across political parties. In fact, two-thirds of adults reported that lowering the cost of drugs and health insurance premiums should be high priority for the Biden Administration, regardless of party affiliation.
Sean Dickson, Health Policy Director at West Health, held a panel discussion with Dr. Amber Hewitt, now Chief Equity Officer for the District of Columbia, and David Certner of AARP. The panel discussed policy proposals to curb the growth of drug costs, including Medicare negotiating rates directly with manufacturers, international reference pricing, and cost sharing caps. Dr. Hewitt shared the importance of having an intersectional health equity lens on drug pricing and health care affordability, citing both sexual orientation and geography as other factors to consider alongside race. In terms of solutions, both panelists agreed that just capping cost sharing fails to address the root of the issue, and instead may result in higher premiums.
The effort to lower prescription drug costs is inextricably linked to health equity.
Structural barriers that drive health inequity go beyond health care as well. Jamal Watkins, Vice President of Civic Engagement at the NAACP, commented: “There [are] also other policies connected and rooted in other fights that still have a connection to a whole culture of health.” He highlighted how access to transportation, housing, clean air, and water indirectly impacts the framework related to affordable prescription drugs. Importantly Jamal Watkins named public policy the greatest equalizer in regard to racial inequalities, urging viewers to turn to policy as a solution.
The effort to lower prescription drug costs is inextricably linked to health equity, in addition to other health policy endeavors. NCHC looks forward to collaborating with the speakers and congressional leaders like Representatives Horsford and Underwood to find sustainable solutions that address the high cost of drugs as part of our mission to create an affordable health care system for all.