Richmond residents are split after Prop 61 does not pass

Liz Masterson, a registered nurse, votes Yes on Prop 61 in Richmond. Photo by Julia Vassey

Registered nurse Liz Masterson voted yes on Prop 61. Photo by Julia Vassey.

For Richmond resident Kathy Greaves, voting yes on Proposition 61—the drug price-control measure that state voters rejected on Tuesday—was a no-brainer, as she buys most of her medication abroad to save money.

“Thyroid medication, allergy medication, antibiotics…I order these drugs online, and save a fortune,” Greaves said.,”.

Greaves said she knew the efforts to defeat the proposition were “well funded by ‘pharma,’” which made her an even bigger supporter of the measure.

More than $123 million was spent in the battle over the proposition, making it the most expensive measure on the California ballot this year. Prop 61’s opponents—led by Merck, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson—spent $109 million to defeat the measure, more than seven times the amount spent in support of it.

Many Richmond residents were split over the measure—often along party lines.

“Drug prices do go out of hand,” said retired nurse Judy Barron, a democrat. “Elderly [people] have to make a choice sometimes: either to buy food or drugs.”

Ron Turner, a disabled veteran who voted against the proposition, said it was “a bad deal for California.”

“I get everything for free now, and if it passes, I might have to pay for my drugs,” he said before the election.

Proposition 61 would have prohibited state agencies, such as Medi-Cal, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, from paying more for any prescription drug than the lowest price paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs for the same drug.

The Department of Veterans Affairs receives a 24 percent federally mandated discount on prescription drugs. Drugs prices set at that rate are publicly available in an online database, but the agency negotiates lower prices for some drugs, and it keeps those prices confidential, according to the State of California Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisor. 

The Government Accountability Office estimates that the Department of Veterans Affairs might be actually getting as much as a 40 percent discount on some prescription drugs, and if manufacturers decided to raise prices in response to Proposition 61, this could have cost the agency about $3.8 billion a year. That alone had many veterans scared across the state.

In Richmond, many voters said they decided whether to support or oppose the ballot based on what they heard in the many ads for and against it.

“I voted yes because Bernie said so,” said retiree Christopher Nelson, referring to former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ support for the proposition.

“I voted no as the Department of Veterans Affairs said on TV,” said Bill Masters, a Korean War veteran.

Polls had predicted a tight race, but in the end the measure was defeated statewide—although in Contra Costa County 51 percent of voters approved it.

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