Drug Costs: If Not Patients, Who Pays?

The NY Times had an article earlier in the week bemoaning the increasing costs of expensive drugs for patients.  Insurers are increasing the co-pays and deductibles in an attempt to control their costs and perhaps decrease utilization.

The article cites the case of a hemophiliac boy with drug costs exceeding $100,000/year.  His family cannot afford increased payments of up to 1/3 of the drugs price.

State lawmakers are stepping in:

Spurred by patients and patient advocates like Ms. Kuhn, lawmakers in at least 20 states, from Maine to Hawaii, have introduced bills that would limit out-of-pocket payments by consumers for expensive drugs used to treat diseases like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and inherited disorders.

Needless to say drug companies who reap excessive profits from these expensive drugs are ecstatic at the notion of lowered copays, anticipating an increase in utilization. 

The article notes that these patent holding companies take advantage

Such drugs account for only 1 percent of total drug use, but 17 percent of drug spending by private insurers, according to IMS Health.

And costs are soaring as more such drugs come to market and as manufacturers raise prices. In 2010, spending on specialty drugs jumped 17.4 percent, compared with only 1.1 percent for other drugs, according to Medco Health Solutions, a pharmacy benefits manager that merged this month with Express Scripts.

Medicynical Note:  The issue here is monopoly, and not the board game.  Our government in hopes of spurring “innovation” provides a generation long monopoly to drug manufacturers who develop  new drugs.  In the past such exclusivity was used judiciously  by drug companies.  Prices for patented agents were high but not so high that they were unaffordable.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, after the passage of the  Dole-Bayh act, manufacturers were allowed to take private new drug advances developed at universities with government funds.  Everyone, the researchers, the universities and the drug companies became owners of the patent and drove the price of advances up.  More entities on the patent means more people wanting a share of the profits.

The free for all has indeed resulted in new drugs, some very effective, the medication cited for hemophilia and imatinib mesylate (Gleevec) for chronic myelogenous leukemia for example.  But the patent protection afforded  allows companies to apply monopoly pricing to their agents.

Before the 90’s no drug approached a yearly cost of even 1/3 the median U.S. income.  Now on a regular basis for a variety of serious illnesses, drug companies price their agents in the range of $100,000/year and more.  An amount that is almost twice the U.S. median income.  It should be noted that just a few of these new drugs are major advances.  Most offer an incremental benefit  for a small proportion of the patients treated.  But all are marketed to desperate patients willing to try anything to ameliorate their symptoms and/or live longer

The irony is that we’ve developed a new medication “system” that we can’t afford.  Insurers, patients and our government are going broke trying to accommodate drug company pricing. 

It’s a little like trees falling in the woods.  If you have a drug that you can’t afford, is there really a drug?

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