A series of recent events have highlighted the problems with our privatized, for-profit health care system. First, there have been numerous cases of drug prices that have increased dramatically. I’ll discuss this topic in this post.

Second, health insurance corporations have been merging (and continue to try to) to create a few, enormous corporations that have monopolistic power, which leads to increases in health insurance costs. A similar pattern is occurring among health care providers, although this tends to be more regional than national. I’ll discuss these issues in my next post, followed by a post on solutions to the problems of our privatized health care system.

These recent events highlight that per capita health care spending in the U.S. continues to climb more rapidly than overall inflation. And they underscore that our health care spending is already exorbitant compared to every other country, while our health outcomes are worse.

The dramatic increase in the cost of EpiPens has been the most recent and perhaps most prominent of the extraordinary increases in drug prices. Perhaps this is because of its widespread usage and dramatic life-saving potential, especially for allergic reactions in children. The history here is that the EpiPen cost $50 in 2004. It was bought by Mylan in 2007, which began to steadily increase its price. It hit $250 in 2013 and then, in August, Mylan jumped the price to $600 – 12 times what it cost in 2004. By the way, the actual drug in the EpiPen costs about $1. [1]

The pharmaceutical corporations typically argue that their high drug prices are needed to pay for research and development. The validity of this argument is questionable at best and clearly false in many cases, such as the EpiPen case. A recent study found no evidence of a connection between drug research and development costs and prices. It concluded that drug prices are based on what the manufacturer can squeeze out of consumers and their insurance. [2]

For example, in August the price of Daraprim was raised to $750 per pill from $13.50. It had been $1 per pill in 2010. This is a 62-year-old drug that treats a life-threatening parasitic infection in babies and those with compromised immune systems, such as AIDS and cancer patients. In 2010, GlaxoSmithKline sold the drug to CorePharma, which quickly increased the price from $1 to around $10 per pill. In August, the drug was acquired by Turing Pharmaceuticals, a start-up run by a former hedge fund manager, and its price was immediately increased to $750 – 750 times its cost in 2010. [3] Turing is not a pharmaceutical company; it doesn’t do research and development. It is basically a hedge fund that buys the rights to drugs on which it believes it can dramatically increase prices to make a great return on its investment. Why the price increases? Greed coupled with a lack of regulation is the only answer.

Similarly, Rodelis Therapeutics bought Cycloserine, a drug to treat drug-resistant tuberculosis. It quickly increased the price per pill to $360 from about $17. Likewise, Valeant Pharmaceuticals acquired two heart drugs and more than doubled the price of one and quintupled the price of the other. This was on top of a quintupling of their prices in 2013 by the previous owner that had recently purchased them. So, overall their prices have jumped to 10 and 25 times what they were in 2013.

Per capita prescription drug spending in the U.S. is the highest in the world. U.S. drug spending is more than twice as high as the average for 19 other advanced countries and one-third higher than in the next most expensive countries, Canada and Germany.

Medicare, the huge health insurance plan for our seniors, is prohibited from negotiating with pharmaceutical corporations for lower drug prices. [4] This was written into the expansion of Medicare that added coverage of drugs by the George W. Bush administration at the behest of the pharmaceutical corporations. Meanwhile, the Veterans Administration, many health insurers, and health care systems in other countries negotiate far lower prices for drugs than what Medicare ends up paying.

U.S. patent laws and other market protections slow the availability of less expensive, generic versions of drugs, thereby supporting high prices for brand name drugs here in the U.S. Brand name drugs (as opposed to generics) represent 10% of prescriptions but 72% of drug spending.

The pharmaceutical corporations also use multiple business strategies to limit competition so they can maintain high prices for their drugs. One strategy is to use what the pharmaceutical industry calls “controlled distribution.” This means that the drugs are not distributed through drugstores but only directly by the corporation. Therefore, companies that want to make and sell a generic version of the drug, cannot get the samples they need to analyze, replicate, and test a generic version of the drug. Another strategy is to pay generic drug manufacturers not to make a generic version of a drug, even after its patent has expired. A third strategy is to make a minor modification to a drug, one that often has no functional impact, in order to obtain a patent extension based on the modification.

Dramatic increases in the prices of generic drugs (i.e., non-brand-name drugs that are no longer covered by a patent) are a relatively new phenomenon. Prices of generic drugs declined from 2006 to 2013. However, there are numerous examples of dramatic price increases over the past 3 years: [5]

  • Tetracycline (a common antibiotic): $0.06 to $4.60 per pill (77 times as expensive)
  • Amitriptyline (an antidepressant): $0.04 to $1.03 per pill (26 times)
  • Clobetasol (a prescription skin cream): $0.26 to $4.15 per gram (16 times)
  • Captopril (a blood pressure med): $0.11 to $0.91 per pill (8 times)
  • Digoxin (a heart med): $0.12 to $0.98 per pill (8 times)

Drug prices in the U.S. are not regulated or routinely negotiated as they are in other countries. Mergers of pharmaceutical corporations have reduced competition. Increasingly, the remaining large corporations have monopolistic power in the marketplace, and hence can increase prices more or less at will.

In California, the pharmaceutical industry, led by Merck and Pfizer, is spending over $80 million to defeat a ballot question that would limit state health plans to paying the discounted drug prices negotiated by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Back in 2005, the pharmaceutical industry spent $135 million to defeat a ballot question that would have required it to provide discounted drugs for the poor. [6]

Perhaps not surprisingly, prescription drug costs represent the fastest growing portion of health care costs. Overall spending on prescription drugs has been growing at 10% per year, double the rate of increase of total health care spending, and roughly 5 times the rate of general inflation in the economy. Prescription drugs now account for 17% of all health care spending. [7]

[1]       Rosenthal, E., 9/2/16, “The lesson of EpiPens: Why drug prices spike, again and again,” The New York Times

[2]       Kesselheim, A.S., Avorn, J., & Sarparwari, A., 8/23/16, “The high cost of prescription drugs in the United States: Origins and prospects for reform,” The Journal of the American Medical Association

[3]       Pollack, A., 9/21/16, “Huge hikes in prices of drugs raise protests and questions,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[4]       Weisman, R., 8/24/16, “Exclusivity rule seen driving up drug costs,” The Boston Globe

[5]       McCluskey, P. D., 11/7/15, “The not-so-cheap alternative,” The Boston Globe

[6]       Robbins, R., 9/7/16, “A revolt against high drug prices,” The Boston Globe

[7]       Weisman, R., 8/24/16, see above


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