BOSTON (State House News Service) – After discussing how pharmacists played a key role in testing, treating and vaccinating the public during the pandemic, advocates asked legislators Thursday to create a Pharmacy Caucus to champion legislation impacting the industry.

Rep. John Lawn, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, and Reps. Patricia Haddad, Alan Silvia, Carole Fiola and Jessica Ann Giannino were all in virtual attendance during a virtual Pharmacy Day event Thursday, and some pledged to join the potential new caucus next session.

Silvia said would reach out to Speaker Ron Mariano about creating the caucus after talking with Lawn about it.

“It is so important, many mentioned COVID and what happened during that period of time, I was very involved with our independent pharmacists, especially during that crisis. They were there in many ways,” he said. “I’d be very happy to be involved in the pharmacy caucus, and I will do all I can to work with our chairman to do that.”

Haddad typed in the Zoom chat that she was “happy to participate,” Fiola sang the praises of local pharmacists in her district, and Eldridge thanked advocates for the suggestion, which he said he is “looking forward to starting next year … that will really strengthen the advocacy for all pharmacies and all pharmacists.

Jacqueline MacCormack-Gagnon, chair of the legislative committee at Massachusetts Society of Health System Pharmacists, outlined some of the association’s policy priorities for next session.

Pharmacists hope to see legislation that shifts authority over certain drugs from insurers to providers, MacCormack-Gagnon said.

“Practices allow the insurer to dictate when, how and where drugs come from,” she said. “We’d like to see that be more up to the health care system and the patient to determine what’s best, so we know that the supply is safe.”

Pharmacist associations also called Thursday for Beacon Hill to impose stricter state regulations on the benefit managers who help negotiate between health plans, manufacturers and pharmacies.

Todd Brown, executive director of the Massachusetts Independent Pharmacists Association, urged lawmakers to reform the role of pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, which opponents say drive up the costs of prescription drugs with unfair business practices.

“We currently have pharmacy benefit managers who are largely unregulated, taking advantage of the system, to enhance their bottom line at the expense of everybody else. To fix this, we really need help both at the federal and the state level,” Brown said.

Rising prescription drug costs continue to contribute to unaffordable health care cost increases, but House and Senate Democrats this session were unable to find common ground on policies to help rein in prescription costs.

As the News Service reported last month, the House never took up a Senate-approved bill that would cap out-of-pocket insulin spending at $25 per month, require pharmaceutical companies to notify the state before significant price increases or rolling out new drugs, and subject drug manufacturers and pharmacy benefit managers to both the Health Policy Commission’s annual cost trend hearings and to examination by the Center for Health Information and Analysis.

Between 2006 and 2020, prices for “widely used brand-name prescription drugs” increased at a 2.9 percent rate, more than twice the 1.3 percent inflation rate, according to a report the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans published last year.

Previous analysis from the Health Policy Commission found that MassHealth spending on prescription drugs grew twice as fast as all other MassHealth spending, jumping from $1.1 billion in 2012 to $1.9 billion in 2017.

Back in 2019, Baker did sign a bill(H 4000) that contained provisions to increase PBM transparency in the state’s Medicaid program.

On a federal level, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee introduced a bipartisan bill in June that addresses anticompetitive practices used by PBMs and gives the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general greater enforcement authority. The federal bill has not yet hit the chamber floor.

“The chairman of the Federal Trade Commission has recognized that previous decisions of the Federal Trade Commission around vertical integration around these companies integrating with health insurers and hospitals and physician groups might not necessarily be in the best interest of the public,” Brown said.

FTC Chair Lina Khan promised to look at these regulations and come up with new recommendations, he said. Brown added he has discussed regulation reform with Eldridge, Lawn and other lawmakers.

“We need similar activity at the state level,” Brown said. “We need PBM reform.”