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A Blown Play: When Congress Treats Patients Like a Political Football, We all Lose

By Rolf Benirschke, National Co-Chair, We Work For Health

As a professional football player, I never underestimated the power of a well-executed play to help tell a lasting story about drive and courage, particularly when it comes to health care. Unfortunately, a deeply misguided proposal in Congress will make it harder for scientists and researchers to pursue breakthrough cures that could help millions of patients win.

A provision within the budget reconciliation bill would implement government price controls for certain prescription medications. Based on how the bill is structured, these controls would come down the hardest on those companies working on advanced therapies used to treat conditions previously thought to be untreatable. That means fewer cures are likely to be developed in the U.S. in the near future, and as many as 600,000 people working in the industry could be out of a job over the next decade.

The impact of this legislation cannot be understated, which I know firsthand having co-founded the Grateful Patient Project to share the stories of patients who want to express gratitude to all those who helped them face life-threatening medical challenges with determination and grit.

Patients like Sherie, a brain tumor survivor who says she wouldn’t be alive without an innovative therapy and who now regularly runs 5K races. Or Scott, who, thanks to recent advances in antivirals, is able to control his HIV infection, which was once a death sentence but his doctors now say his life expectancy is no different than someone without HIV. Then there’s Adrienne, who has a child with Sickle Cell disease and is counting on researchers to develop a cure that will bring her son relief and allow him to live a typical life.

I have a story of my own. Midway through my third season playing for the San Diego Chargers, I collapsed on a cross-country flight home after a game. My ulcerative colitis, with which I had been diagnosed the season before, had finally gotten the better of me. When the plane landed, I was rushed into emergency surgery - two surgeries actually - that left me wearing an ostomy bag. I was sure my days playing football were over. Fortunately, they weren’t, all thanks to the outstanding care I received with some truly amazing and innovative treatments.

I returned to the NFL to play seven more seasons, was named Comeback Player of the Year in 1980 and was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame in 1997.

But my health challenges didn’t end there. In the late 1990s, I was diagnosed with hepatitis C likely from tainted blood I had received during my surgery back in 1979. But I got lucky again. I was able to enroll in a clinical trial for what would become an incredible, breakthrough treatment that now gives patients a more than 90% chance of being cured. Decades later, I am still clear of the virus and am in great health.

Innovative treatments like the ones Sherry, Scott, Adrienne and I were able to benefit from don’t emerge in a vacuum. It takes thousands of incredibly talented people years of work – and often hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars – to pull off discoveries like these. All the while, they face tough headwinds including the ever-present possibility of total failure.

Lawmakers are setting up the wrong play here. Instead of focusing on policies that would actually lower costs for patients – such as capping out-of-pocket costs, reducing insurer-imposed restrictions on medications, and requiring pharmacy benefit managers to share rebates with patients - the bill would allow politicians to decide which medications are “worth” paying for, and ultimately dictate which diseases are likely to see new treatments be developed.

Stated simply, it’s important to have public policies that encourage investment in new treatments and ensure investors are comfortable taking the risks necessary to continue innovating. Government price controls could cause that pool of investment to dry up. In fact, a recent study found Congress’ current proposal could wipe away $455 billion from the industry over the next decade.

When I co-founded the Grateful Patient Project, I sought out to harness the collective voice of those working to keep the patient perspective at the forefront of public policymaking. Their stories serve as a powerful example of what’s at stake if government price controls are put in place for innovative treatments. We can’t afford to disrupt the long arc of innovation nor should we tolerate it when patients and their stories are treated like a political football by politicians to score a talking point. Make no mistake, Congress’ drug price control proposal won’t help anyone, it’ll only cause harm and it’s a play gone wrong.

Rolf Benirschke is a co-founder of the Grateful Patient Project and co-chair of We Work for Health. He is a retired NFL placekicker who played 10 seasons with the San Diego Chargers.


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