MYSTIC — When CT Examiner caught up with State Senator Heather Somers (R-18th) on Monday morning, she arrived with a long list of bills she’s getting ready to submit, and in some cases resubmit, during the upcoming legislative session.
With measured optimism, Somers said it takes persistence to get a bill made into law. “I call it continuous bill commitment,” she said of several bills that have made progress each year.
Drug rebates, health insurance
Somers’ first bill is aimed at reducing drug costs for consumers by taking aim at drug rebates — negotiated for insurance companies by pharmacy benefit managers as part of an approved list of medicines — but that are not passed on to patients.
“I think it’s important for transparency that people see that there are companies that are trying to help with the idea of lower drug costs, but it’s not getting passed on to the consumer,” Somers said. “With this bill, they would have to base their percentage of the wholesale cost minus the rebate.”
Depending on their health insurance coverage, consumers pay a portion of a drug’s price, which is determined by the pharmacy benefit managers. The rebate is a percentage of that price, regardless of what the consumer paid. For example, if a patient’s copay is 30 percent of a drug that costs $100, then the patient’s cost is $30. But if, for example, that drug has a $50 rebate, that reduces the price to $50. In that case, the cost to the patient should be calculated as 30 percent of $50, since that is the real cost, Somers said.
Another bill, sponsored by Sommers, would shift the burden of proof from the patient to the health insurer, if an insurance company decides to switch coverage to an alternative, often less expensive, drug.
Current law gives the insurance company and the doctor 90 days to come to an agreement — a timeframe that could be life-threatening to very ill patients, Somers said.
“They cannot change or pull you off a formulary during the term of your contract unless they can prove why you should be switched. Most of the clinicians I’ve talked to have said if it’s an easy switch then it doesn’t matter, but there are cases where, for example, your cancer med is not covered and we’re putting you on a different cancer med that doesn’t work — and you don’t have 90 days,” she said.
A third bill proposed by Somers would increase the penalty for knowingly selling counterfeit drugs that harm consumers, to the same punishment for selling illicit drugs. Somers said selling fake drugs to desperately ill patients should carry at least the same penalty as selling heroin.
“For me it’s worse, because some of these drugs are $15,000 or $20,000 a month and the person is thinking they are buying the manufactured prescription — they’re paying for it, they’re injecting it and the person is knowingly selling it to you, knowing that it’s fake,” she said. “You have kids who have cancer, people [with] diabetes. The only way that we find out in many cases is that the person dies or there’s a complaint that the drug isn’t working and it’s sent to the pharmaceutical companies’ labs for testing.”
Currently the penalty for selling a counterfeit drug is a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in jail, and as much as five years in jail and a $5,000 fine — significantly less than the 15 years and/or a fine of $50,000 for illicit drugs.
Coverage for IEPs
Somers also will introduce a bill requiring families to use their private health insurance first to pay for a student’s medical tests required for an Individualized Education Plan before asking the school district to pay for the tests.
“Right now it’s putting a huge burden on the school districts — they have to pay for all that testing and that’s not really fair. If you are a person who has insurance, you should exhaust that before you go to the school,” she said. “People that don’t have insurance, the school can’t get them to sign up for Husky-D that the state would pay to cover those insurance? There’s a huge cost associated with all those tests — it would help the school districts, it would help kids get coverage and if you have insurance and you’re paying for it, you should exhaust that.”
Somers said would also introduce a bill to place mental health workers in school-based health centers. “I think if you can identify the kids that are at risk earlier, you have a better chance to intervene and help them,” explained Somers.
Tackling food waste
Somers said she will also resubmit a food waste collection bill for an anaerobic digester program that could create energy to be used for greenhouses and to help reduce the state’s volume of trash.
“In Connecticut, we’ve seen the tipping rates going way up, but if we could take the food waste out of the waste stream and have food waste collection, even if we did it as a pilot program, that food waste could go to an anaerobic digester,” she said. “I tried this bill last year, it went along, but it didn’t just didn’t make it across the finish line.”
Due process for mental health
Somers will also reintroduce a bill to end Connecticut’s practice of continued civil commitment. Currently, people who committed a crime and have pled not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) are confined in a state mental hospital and can be held indefinitely.
Connecticut law does not provide a hearing once the equivalent legal prison sentence for the crime has expired. Instead, the prosecuting attorney confers with the Connecticut Psychiatric Security Review Board to assess risk and makes an administrative decision on whether to release or continue to confine the person.
Somers said that the practice leads to sometimes lengthy and unnecessary confinements for patients caught up in the system, and encourages others to serve prison sentences rather than seek needed medical treatment.
Nip bottles, tickets, quasi-publics and vaping
Somers intends also to introduce a bill to place a 25-cent deposit on nip bottles, which she said are a significant polluter in Connecticut. Somers said that with the added deposit, a fifth of alcohol and the equivalent number of nips would cost the same.
The .25-cent deposit will help revive the state’s ailing redemption center, provide jobs to members of the intellectual or developmental disability community (IDD) and help clean up the environment because the bottles will be redeemable.
Somers described a number of other bills that she intends to introduce, including one that will provide protection to people whose pictures were used online by others, without permission, to advertise for sex. Another bill will let individuals who are paying parking tickets the option of giving the money to an animal shelter or other charity. A third bill will loosen the Eastern Regional Tourism District statute to allow more flexibility and ensure that funding is used for appropriate purposes.
She also said there was a possibility of passing a bill to regulate quasi-public agencies “I think both parties recognize that there should be more transparency, a different way to make sure quasi-public agencies are doing what their mission entails,” she said.
Somers said she also wants to create a bill to address vaping and marketing to minors.
“When you have flavors like Jolly Rancher and watermelon and bubblegum, there has to be a way to figure out how to make that less attractive to young people because not only do we have people dying but you can get up to 169 times the nicotine in one of those and people are becoming addicted — a whole new generation,” she said.