Experimental COVID treatment Remdesivir. Photo via Shutterstock.
Experimental COVID treatment Remdesivir. Photo via Shutterstock.

President Trump’s policies have left Michigan families fighting for life-saving drugs they can no longer afford.

MARQUETTE, MI — Upper Peninsula resident Garret Lewis was diagnosed with HIV in January, which has made the prospect of returning to work during the pandemic a significant risk to his life. His doctor has said that if his white blood cell count drops much lower, his diagnosis will become AIDS. 

But not having work during a pandemic has impacted his ability to afford the high costs associated with his disease. Medication for HIV/AIDS costs between $10 and $100 per pill for daily treatments, paid for the rest of a patient’s life. 

“I do have extra financial help through the Ryan White Foundation for medication and some medical bills,” Lewis told The ‘Gander. “[But] the hardest part is not being able to pay medical bills. They are small bills but because I have had to have so many visits in such a small amount of time, the $40 bills have been adding up.”

And because his restaurant reopened but he medically couldn’t safely return to work, Lewis has no income during the pandemic at all. What can’t be covered through the government’s Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program has to come from the nearly nothing Lewis has on hand. 

And that is treating a much more established and understood pandemic than the novel coronavirus called COVID-19. Costs associated with the new pandemic are high as well, and results unpredictable. 

Prescription Costs in the Modern Pandemic

The high cost of health care has been a pervasive problem in the United States for years, and treating COVID-19 isn’t an exception to that rule under the Trump administration.

How people in Michigan pay for COVID-19 treatment, and eventually, a vaccine for the coronavirus, highlights a key difference in how Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would approach the pandemic versus President Donald Trump.

Biden’s plan calls for eliminating all cost barriers to preventive care and treatment of COVID-19, meaning “no co-payments, no deductibles, and no surprise medical billing.” He also wants the federal government to approve the price of a vaccine, to ensure it is a “fair and reasonable” cost.

In contrast, the Trump administration said they would pick up the cost of treatment, but has refused to cover the cost of any lingering effects patients experience as a result of COVID-19, like heart or kidney damage, leaving those patients with huge hospital bills. 

And the ability for states to step in and provide support is essentially non-existent. A combination of the costs of pandemic support measures already in place and sudden high unemployment have eviscerated the budgets of states across the country. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has repeatedly called on Trump and Congress to send more financial aid to states as it is, and those requests have been so far fruitless. 

But the Ryan White program shows that the federal government can and has stepped in to help Americans like Lewis with prescription costs during pandemics. And that’s not the only tool the federal government has to ease cost burdens for COVID-19 treatment. 

And the financial pain related to COVID-19 treatment doesn’t end there. 

Drug Exclusivity Causing Prices to Skyrocket

The Trump administration also swiftly shot down a recent request from bipartisan attorneys general to reduce the cost of remdesivir, one of the few drugs that has been an effective treatment for COVID-19. And they have relied on private insurance companies to decide if and when they will waive out-of-pocket costs for treating people with private health insurance plans. 

The state attorneys general sent a letter on Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, among other Trump officials, urging them to take away Gilead Sciences’ exclusive right to manufacture remdesivir. They argue that Gilead has an insufficient supply of the drug, and that the price tag of about $2,000 to $3,000 for a course of treatment is too high for both patients and state governments.

A spokesperson for HHS told Fox Business that the attorneys general’s request was a “nonstarter.” In other words, it wasn’t going to happen. 

The HHS decision has huge implications for the cost of COVID-19 treatment, despite the administration’s assurances that treatments would be affordable or free for much of the country. Depending on their plan, workers with employer-sponsored health insurance coverage could be saddled with some portion of the cost of medications, whether through copays, co-insurance, or deductibles. Insurance providers would also see their costs soar. Additionally, states—already struggling with shrinking budgets and huge unemployment rolls—would be responsible for paying a portion of the cost of a remdesivir treatment for those on Medicaid.

A similar issue could arise around COVID-19 vaccines. Moderna, a pharmaceutical company in the United States, announced that it will charge $37 per dose of its treatment recently. That cost is 90% to 300% higher than what other drug companies plan to charge for their vaccines, according to CBS News. Moderna, along with Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, have all received hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding to develop the vaccine. Of those three, only Moderna has decided to sell their vaccine for a profit.