What a welcome headline from the New York Times. The cash prices of prescription drugs have always seemed eye-poppingly expensive, but in recent years, the pricing is closer to heart-stoppingly exorbitant. (Obviously that’s hyperbole, but it feels close to the truth. I’ve been researching triptan costs this week. Treximet, a combination of a (relatively) inexpensive generic triptan and an OTC painkiller, costs $71.10 per pill! That’s with a discount with a prescription card.)
Pressure is mounting for pharmaceutical companies to disclose drug development costs, profits for specific medications, and how prices are set, according to the New York Times article. It’s coming from a wide range of sources: doctors, patients, patient organizations, state and federal politicians, the U.A.W. Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, and even Bill Clinton. At least six states have introduced bills in the last year to require drug companies to justify pricing.
More than 100 prominent oncologists call for a grassroots movement to stop the rapid price increases of cancer drugs in an article that will be published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings tomorrow. “There is no relief in sight because drug companies keep challenging the market with even higher prices. This raises the question of whether current pricing of cancer drugs is based on reasonable expectation of return on investment or whether it is based on what prices the market can bear,” they wrote. Although the focus is cancer drugs, these problems apply to all prescription drugs.
Unsurprisingly, pharmaceutical and biotech companies are balking. You’ve heard the explanations: research and development is expensive, something has to cover the cost of all the drugs that don’t make it to market, and drugs can lower health care spending in other areas. That’s not the whole story, of course. This anonymous comment from the director of a multiple sclerosis drug developer is telling: “We all look at each other and keep pace with each other. Honestly, there is no science to it.” There’s also the fact that Medicare is legally barred from negotiating drug prices—they must pay whatever drug companies charge.
I’m probably more sympathetic to pharmaceutical companies than many patients are. Drug development is expensive and some drugs have a narrow market limited by a small number of patients with a disease. Publicly traded companies have to earn profits.
And yet. How much of pricing is determined by the fact that the person recommending the drug and the one taking the drug usually don’t even know how much it costs? How much of it is price gouging simply for the sake that it can be done? This article only addresses brand name prescription drugs; generic drug prices are also ridiculously high (and rising).
The media has been covering high prescription drug prices with increasing alarm over the last few years. This coverage and awareness-raising are critical first steps, but what do we do next? How can patients fight back? We can sign this petition, which is focused on cancer drugs, and email our state and federal representatives. But what else? I want to DO something, not wait for lawmakers to maybe, hopefully fix the problem. Boycotting the drugs feels like our only potential source of power. Even the most principled of us are unlikely to forgo medication we need to function or live to make a point. I feel trapped and powerless… which, for pharmaceutical companies, is the perfect place for patients to be.