AUGUSTA, Maine — State lawmakers are considering two bills that would lower the cost of prescription drugs in Maine by requiring state agencies to pay the same or lower prices than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The bills were submitted by Houlton Sen. Michael Carpenter, who said one of the bills, LD 655, “An Act to Lower the Price MaineCare Pays for Prescription Drugs,” requires the commissioner of Health and Human Services to negotiate the lowest price for all prescription drugs for programs under MaineCare, unless prohibited by federal law. The second bill, LD 652, “An Act to Provide Drug Price Relief,” would require state agencies to pay the same or lower price than the VA, which Carpenter said receives a discounted price on prescription drugs from drug manufacturers.

He said negotiating for better prices can have a huge impact on publicly funded health care plans.

He told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee during public hearings on the bill on April 24 that some estimates indicate negotiating drug prices in Medicare could save more than $200 billion and a recent poll from the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation shows that 82 percent of Americans favor this sort of policy.

“Drug corporations and their lobbyists will argue that the sky will fall if they are forced to sell prescriptions at lower prices, but the simple fact is price gouging is more profitable than protecting working class people and seniors,” Carpenter said. “Drug prices in Maine and around the country are far too high and out of reach for many families.”

Don Berry, president of the Maine Alliance of Retired Americans, which supports the measure, told the committee that a number of seniors were cutting their pills in half or forgoing taking them because of price gouging and prescription drugs “that are priced out of reach.”

“I feel like this issue is reaching a tipping point where the public is growing increasingly fed up with the price gouging, the skyrocketing pharmaceutical profits that are higher than just about any other industry … and with the prescription drug costs for Mainers and Americans that are some of the highest in the world,” he told the committee.

The Maine State Nurses Association also supported the bill, as did the Maine AFL-CIO.

But the state Department of Health and Human Services opposed both bills.

Stefanie Nadeau, director of MaineCare services, told lawmakers that MaineCare purchases drugs under what is called the Sovereign States Drug Consortium, which includes other states and obtains prescription drugs for beneficiaries in their Medicaid programs at a lower cost. The purchasing pool focuses on negotiating and acquiring supplemental rebates to federal Medicaid rebates from drug manufacturers.

Nadeau said the SSDC preserves each state’s ability to manage its pharmacy benefits by customizing its own Preferred Drug List and Prior Approval programs.

“The SSDC requires the commissioner’s signature and approval on a memorandum of understanding, so in essence, as a member of this purchasing pool, MaineCare is already negotiating the lowest cost,” she said.

Col. Kelley J. Kash, CEO of the Maine Veterans Homes, testified against the phrase “other state entity” in LD 652. He said if that wording applied to the Maine Veterans Home, it would restrict pharmacy operations and hamstring abilities to provide care to veterans and non-veteran residents.

Bioscience Association of Maine, the trade organization representing such industries as pharmaceuticals, biopharmaceuticals and medical devices, also opposed LD 652.

Bryan Bozsik, president of the board of directors for the association, told lawmakers the bill’s attempt to appropriate this pricing structure has the potential to undermine the research and development lifecycle “that has brought so many new treatments to an ever expanding list of diseases with fewer and fewer patient populations and potentially affect the existing pricing structure that assists our deserving veterans.”

In addition, a representative from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America opposed both bills.

Carpenter said he was not surprised by the opposition from the pharmaceutical companies.

“They are out to save money,” he said. “That is sad, because Mainers are clearly suffering.”

Both bills remain in committee awaiting further action. A work session on the two is scheduled for May 1.