LOS ANGELES (AP) — A ballot measure that would cap how much California spends on prescription medications for millions of retirees, poor people and prisoners trailed Tuesday after an enormously expensive opposition campaign by the pharmaceutical industry.
About 54 percent of 4 million votes counted opposed Proposition 61, the “California Drug Price Relief Act.”
“The early returns are encouraging, but there are still a lot of votes to be counted,” said Kathy Fairbanks, spokeswoman for the “no” campaign.
Proposition 61 was launched by activist Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which raised the bulk of the more than $18 million in support. A spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday night.
The ballot measure produced the most spending of California’s 17 statewide initiatives, with the pharmaceutical industry pouring in $109 million. The two sides featured dueling advertisements saying capping spending would either will finally help curb spiraling drug prices or lead to even higher costs for virtually everyone else.
Proposition 61 would prohibit certain state agencies from paying more for a drug than the lowest price paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Serving some 9 million veterans around the country, the VA tends to pay some of the cheapest prices because of its massive bargaining power and automatic discounts it gets under federal law.
Backers say passage would save the state money for prescriptions it reimburses or buys for prison inmates, government retirees and some low-income residents on Medi-Cal, the state’s low-cost or free Medicaid health plan for the poor. During the year ending June 30, 2015, California spent about $4 billion on drugs for the groups covered under the initiative.
Opponents contend it would reduce access to medicines and if the industry lowers prices for this group it would simply raise prices for others, including veterans. And since Proposition 61 does not force drug makers to alter their prices — it only stipulates that the state not pay more than the VA price — independent analysts said it’s unclear whether California would save significant money.
Drug pricing is a hot national issue and drug companies have faced blistering criticism over some huge hikes in the cost for individual items, such as Turing Pharmaceuticals raising by 5,000 percent the cost of a drug for a life-threatening parasitic infection and Mylan’s pair of EpiPen emergency allergy shots, which has gone up by more than 500 percent since 2007.
While only about 10 to 15 percent of California’s 39 million residents would be affected by Proposition 61, supporters think passage would be a step toward broader price reductions elsewhere.
Both sides recruited heavy-hitters for their causes. Supporters include the California Nurses Association, AARP and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who held rallies in Los Angeles and Sacramento the day before Election Day.
Opponents include the California Medical Association, the state’s largest doctors’ organization, and the state chapters of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and the American Legion.