CANTON — Should limits on how much the state pays for prescription drugs be written into Ohio law?

Two women representing the organizations supporting Issue 2 on the Nov. 7 ballot and a man representing the campaign opposed to it made their arguments Tuesday night before a packed room of roughly 85 people at the Stark County District Library. The Canton Area League of Women Voters and The Canton Repository organized the event with Ron Ponder, a former WHBC radio host, moderating the discussion.

If voters approve the issue, it would change state law and would require that Ohio agencies "not pay more for prescription drugs than the federal Department of Veterans Affairs." It would also require the state cover the "reasonable" cost of attorneys for the people who initiated the petition to place the issue on the ballot if they sue Ohio to compel Issue 2’s enforcement. But those petitioners would be required to pay Ohio $10,000 if a court determined the new law was unenforceable.

Proponents’ arguments

Victoria Zyp, a deputy campaign manager for the Yes on Issue 2 Campaign, said people increasingly are unable to afford prescription drugs crucial to their health. She said the VA has negotiated discount drug rates for veterans who are patients in its hospital and clinic system. Passing Issue 2 would compel the state not to pay higher rates on the drugs for Medicaid recipients, Medicaid retirees, state retirees and state employees, collectively about 4 million Ohioans, she said.

"It’s almost as if the VA has a Costco card with the drug companies and we get to join their Costco membership as the state of Ohio," said Zyp, who is based in the Cincinnati area. "Prescription prices should be lower. They should be lower for the people who need them."

She said the rest of Ohioans not directly covered under Issue 2, such as those with private insurance, would benefit because their tax dollars not spent on state-purchased prescriptions could, instead, be spent to benefit local communities, such as on police departments, fire departments, schools and tax relief and with money "not going to the drug companies that pay their CEOs tens of millions of dollars every year."

Zyp said the issue would promote drug price transparency.

Tracy Jones is the national director of mobilization campaigns for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a major sponsor of Issue 2. She is one of the four people who initiated the petition to place Issue 2 on the ballot.

"This is a social justice issue — not an issue to make money. We’re not in it for that,"Jones said. "People are cutting their pills in half. (They) can’t afford their insulin and can’t afford cancer medication in order to ensure they can sustain their life. It’s wrong. ... there’s nothing to stop (drug companies) from increasing prices, nothing."

Issue 2 ‘unworkable’

Chris Galloway, a field coordinator for the Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue, said one of Issue 2’s main shortcomings is that it would not affect two-thirds of Ohio residents. Also, "it’s unworkable and unimplementable," he said.

Galloway said the VA buys many of its drugs under confidential agreements with pharmaceutical companies, making the true, discounted prices unknown. And, he said Medicaid, which is run by Ohio, already gets a discounted price for drugs nearly equal to the VA. In addition, he said, Medicaid buys many kinds of drugs that the VA does not.

"So what this issue is asking is for you as a voter to establish a level of government bureaucracy in the state of Ohio to chase its tail trying to determine what the price is that the VA is ... being charged for a particular drug," said Galloway, a political consultant and Concord Township trustee in Lake County.

He argued that the issue, if approved, would burden small family-owned pharmacies because the VA buys drugs directly from drug companies, while the state buys them from pharmacies.

Differing outlooks

Zyp sought to depict the pharmaceutical industry as one motivated primarily by profits at the expense of people’s health or finances. She said a drug company consortium had spent $2 million on an ad campaign against Issue 2 that her organization could not match in resources, resulting in the Yes on Issue 2 Campaign focusing on less costly online ads.

"They’re clearly trying to do that to protect their profit. ... it’s not right," said Zyp, adding that the high costs make life-saving drugs inaccessible to many people. "By voting yes, it means we have the opportunity to bring tax dollars into your community, lower drug prices and hold these drug companies accountable."

Galloway said some money from drug companies support his campaign organization. But he said he had not gone through the campaign finance reports to know who are all the donors. He also criticized the provision mandating Ohio pay the petitioners’ legal bills if they file a lawsuit to compel the state to enforce the issue.

Zyp said state governments often have resisted implementing voter-approved issues and that "the language is there to make sure that the will of the voters is protected if the attorney general says he will not protect it."

Jones said, "there’ll be no lawsuit as long as (Ohio Attorney General) Mike DeWine does the will of the people."

Robert Wang is a staff writer for The Canton Repository.