Those who happen to use public radio as an alarm clock know it’s a bleak week. Proposed cuts to federal funding of public radio being talked about in the House’s FY 2011 budget have unleashed a frantic country-wide pledge drive. (Health care wise, bleak ideas include Medicare voucherization, $1.3 billion in cuts to community health centers and axing the national health service core.)

And on Tuesday, the President laid out his budget, and tucked in to page 119 among the good (ie terminating “SLAMRAAM” short-range missile defense procurement, or doing more teleconferences and flying less), the bad, and the ugly (cutting low-income heating assistance) is a little Valentine for those interested in keeping prescription drug costs down and access up.

The Administration’s budget would prohibit pay-for-delay settlements, legal agreements in which brand name drug companies pay off generic companies to keep market exclusivity that have little real or purported benefit for consumers (or anyone but shareholders). [Check out this blog for more.] The President estimates $8.7 billion in savings over the next 10 years, more than the CBO’s estimated savings (~$2.7 billion) but less than the FTC’s prediction (~$12 billion).

The President’s proposal would also shorten the exclusivity period for biologics from 12 years to 7, making way for biogenerics to enter the market more quickly and saving an estimated $2.34 billion over the next 10 years.

Why are these steps important to a common-sense plan to reduce health care costs? Well, for one thing, this country has a prescription drug cost problem. A Commonwealth Fund report last year found the U.S spent $234 billion per year on drugs, and significantly more per person than other high income nations (30 percent more than Canada in 2005). But it’s not just that we’re paying too much; this cost issue means that many people can’t get adequate access to the drugs they need; according to the Commonwealth report, nearly a quarter of Americans skipped or split pills because they could not afford their medicines.  Of course, they are not the whole picture: much of the cost of prescription drugs is tied to the Medicare drug benefit, which the affordable care act sought to fix, and it remains to be seen what will happen there during the budget negotiations.

But in addition, these exclusivity tactics, if they don’t harm innovation, don’t seem to have helped it. Keeping competitors out of the market and in court with pay-for-deal may be a good strategy profit-wise, but it has not necessarily boosted a bolder R&D agenda. Without demonstrable good for access or innovation, closing up such spending drains where we can seems a smart move.

For more on pay-for-delay settlements, visit Prescription Access Litigation, and Kaiser Health News’ good roundup on the budget negotiations.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger