When it comes to the cost of pharmaceutical drugs in the U.S., there’s a bit of trouble in paradise. Last year’s spat over the soaring purchase prices for the EpiPen, used to treat severe allergic reactions in emergencies, galvanized public concern over what has long been a major problem.
Prescription drugs often cost a lot, and the same medications can be far more expensive in the U.S. than abroad. Though we acknowledge that drugmakers do invest billions of dollars in research to develop new drugs and bring them to market, there is no defending the skyrocketing prices demanded by manufacturers for some medications.
In one highly publicized case, Mylan purchased the maker of the EpiPen and obtained a virtual monopoly after a rival firm quit selling the emergency treatment for potentially fatal allergic reactions. Mylan’s price for an injector shot higher than $600 compared with less than $100 in 2007.
Public pressure led Mylan to offer discounts last year, and the company faced scathing hearings in Congress. Recently, the CVS pharmacy chain said it was cutting its price in half for a generic version of the injector, selling it in a two-pack for $109.99.
In another egregious case, Turing Pharmaceuticals jacked up the price of a medication used to treat toxoplasmosis — caused by a parasite — from $13.50 to $750 per tablet.
Medications can be far cheaper outside the country. A CNN report last year said the acid reflux drug Nexium cost a U.S. insurer about $215 per customer, on average. The same prescription in the Netherlands was about $23.
Unfortunately there’s a tendency to oversimplify the problem. That is what happened recently when the two U.S. senators from Washington, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, joined 11 other Democrats in voting against a symbolic amendment to a budget reconciliation bill. The amendment from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, dealt with consumers importing prescription drugs from Canada; it received 46 votes in support including members of both parties. But it failed to pass, and advocacy groups quickly slammed the 13 Democrats, linking the votes to drugmakers’ campaign contributions.
No question, Murray and Cantwell have taken industry contributions for their campaigns, and their health care votes deserve close scrutiny as a result. But an analysis by independent fact-checkers at PolitiFact.org found the amounts they received since 2011 were less than accusers reported. More to the point, the senators both had concerns about the safety of imported drugs. Murray also said she is willing to work with Sanders on legislation that addresses that.
PolitiFact noted that all 13 vilified senators did vote for a different symbolic budget amendment, this one from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, which called for lower drug prices. Wyden’s proposal cited President Donald Trump’s recent statements about wanting lower prices. Trump said he favors negotiating for better prices by using the purchasing power of Medicare and Medicaid.
The Veterans Administration already negotiates prices for drug purchases. The VA also has a formulary or list of preferred drugs, which critics say can reduce medication options and doesn’t always mean lower prices.
That is no reason to give up. There should be a way to control medication costs that includes safe imports and that harnesses the purchasing power of the government. Those are solutions our elected officials ought to be fixing their sights on.
This is one place where Democrats, some Republicans and the new president should try to find common ground.