Americans spend far more on medicines than people in any other country in the world. Researchers write in JAMA (Aug. 23-30, 2016) that “List prices for the top 20 highest-revenue grossing drugs were on average 3 times greater in the United States than the United Kingdom.”
How Bad Is it Really?
Prescriptions drug costs are rising rapidly. From 2008 to 2015 the cost for the most commonly prescribed brand name drugs zoomed 164 percent. During this same time period the consumer price index only rose 12 percent. That means that pharmaceuticals far outpaced the increases in most other consumer goods.
If milk, bread or computers went up in price like drugs, Americans would be outraged. They would likely adopt the mantra: “We’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore.” But for reasons that remain mysterious to us, we accept stratospheric prices for life-saving medicines without batting an eye. Even when new cancer drugs cost $150,000 a year there are no protests.
Comments from readers:
Gary in Florida says:
“One reason that there is not more outrage concerning drug prices is so many Americans have entitlements. This includes congressmen, people with Cadillac drug plans, and the military. While no one believes that these
people do not deserve paying almost nothing for Rx drugs, neither they, nor their doctors have any idea what the rest of us are paying.”
Joanie in Seattle relates her experience abroad:
“Recently I cruised the Black Sea and visited Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria to name a few countries. I had left home without my Celebrex and pulled a hamstring which caused much pain. In visiting pharmacies in these countries asking for Celebrex it was available over the counter for $6. My US insurance charges $130 for a 3 month supply. I’ll try Canada next or maybe take a quick flight to Greece. Ridiculous!”
Beverly in Wisconsin adds:
“My parents bought their prescriptions from Canada for years and paid about 1/3 of the U.S. price. The drugs they purchased had been manufactured by well-known companies in the United Kingdom.”
What Happens in Other Countries?
In most countries around the world governments limit how much a pharmaceutical company can charge for a given product. In addition, national health services negotiate prices based on their perception of the value of the medications. In contrast, U.S. government programs including Medicare are not allowed to negotiate drug prices.
Insurance companies have shifted costs by increasing deductibles and co-payments. As a result, some people find that their prescribed medications are out of reach. To overcome these problems the authors recommend enhanced competition, negotiation by governmental payers and value-based decision making by doctors and patients.
What Can you Do?
In our recently revised 20-page Guide to Saving Money on Medicines we offer several tips for patients. They include:
- Find out about access to free medicines. The pharmaceutical industry offers help to people on limited budgets who qualify for their programs. It will require help from your doctor, though.
- Shop around. Prices can vary widely from one pharmacy to another. We bet you didn’t know that you can also negotiate price with a pharmacist. Consumer Reports suggests asking: “Is this your lowest price?” You might be surprised to learn that just asking can get you a better deal.
- If you don’t trust all generic drugs, find out about authorized generics. They are often made on the same production line as the brand name but cost a fraction as much.
- Consider online shopping. PharmacyChecker.com provides access to verified Canadian pharmacies.
Check out our Guide to Saving Money on Medicines for more details on these any many other strategies for controlling outrageous drug prices. If you are not outraged about drug costs, please let us know why in the comment section below.