Price hikes on prescription drugs are surging in 2019, despite vows from lawmakers and the Trump administration to rein in pharmaceutical costs.
So far in 2019, more than 3,400 drugs have boosted their prices, a 17% increase compared with the roughly 2,900 drug price increases at the same time in 2018, according to a new analysis by Rx Savings Solutions, a consultant to health plans and employers.
The average price hike for those 3,400 drugs stands at 10.5%, or about 5 times the rate of inflation, the study found. About 41 drugs have boosted their prices by more than 100%, including one version of the antidepressant fluoxetine -- also known as Prozac -- whose cost has surged 879%, Rx Savings Solutions said.
The price increases come at a time when lawmakers and consumers are increasingly concerned about the escalating cost of medications, which are far outpacing wage growth and the cost of living. Four of 5 Americans believe the cost of prescription drugs is unreasonable, according to a study earlier this year from the Kaiser Family Foundation. About one-third of patients say they're skipping prescription medicine because of the cost, the survey found.
"In the political climate we live in and the conversations we're having, that there are more drug price increases this year -- you would think that wouldn't be the case," said Michael Rea, founder and CEO of Rx Savings Solutions. "It defines the difficulty that consumers have."
Triple-digit price increases seen
To be sure, the hikes on more than 3,400 drugs represent a small share of the overall pharmaceutical market. But for patients who rely on one of those medicines, the costs can add to rapidly rising health care expenditures and create dilemmas about how to pay for their care.
Aside from fluoxetine, other commonly used drugs with big price increases in 2019 are:
- Mometasone 0.1% Topical Cream. This topical steroid has increased 381% this year, Rx Savings Solutions found.
- Promethazine/Codeine 6.25-10mg/5mL solution. This pain reliever and cough medication rose 326%, Rx Savings Solutions said
- Guanfacine 2mg tablet. This ADHD treatment rose 118%, the study found.
An "inelastic market"
Drug prices are rising because of a combination of pressure from shareholders to deliver higher profits and what Rea calls an "inelastic market."
"It's a good that people need, in many cases in order to stay alive," he says. "You have a lot of flexibility to drive prices higher and higher."
That's an issue with insulin, which Type 1 diabetics require to stay alive. Even though the medication was discovered nearly a century ago, its price has more than doubled over 5 years, causing financial hardship for many diabetics and prompting some to ration the medication to cut costs. In some cases, those decisions have proved fatal.
Ask pharmacist if cheaper versions available
Consumers should try to find as much information as they can about their treatment options, such as whether another version of the drug or a similar medication, might offer a better value, Rea says.
Researching drug prices can also deliver savings, he says. Until recently, pharmacists weren't allowed to provide pricing data because of their contracts with pharmacy benefit managers, but a Trump administration rule now bars these gag orders. Still, you'll have to ask your pharmacist for price data, because they don't have to volunteer it.
It soon may get slightly easier to get basic cost information under a new rule announced by the Trump administration last month, which will require pharmaceutical companies to reveal the price for many prescription drugs in TV commercials. The rule is expected to go into effect over the summer.
Even so, it can be difficult for consumers to get a handle on actual prices, given rebates and discounts offered by insurers and their pharmacy benefit managers off of inflated list prices.
"We don't have an open and efficient market," Rea noted. "Those things lead to this environment and to higher prices."