by Jacob Solis
Over the past decade, prices for prescription drugs have increased dramatically. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services pegged last year’s jump alone at 12 percent.
Among the Democratic field for the presidency, prescription drug prices have been quick to rise to the fore of policy discussions and the debate over such costs will likely persist well into the campaign season.
A tracking poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 62 percent of respondents said that the government is not doing enough to regulate prescription drug prices. More than that, some 63 percent of respondents want the price of prescription drugs to be the number-one priority for the federal government while 77 percent felt that high-cost drugs for chronic illnesses, like HIV, should be available to those who need them.
These numbers have prompted a great deal of action on the public policy front. In September, Vermont senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders partnered with Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., to sponsor the Prescription Drug Affordability Act, which would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to bring prices down.
Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton, the current frontrunner in the Democratic race for the presidency, has proposed her own plan that would cap out-of-pocket payments for prescription drugs at $250 a month.
On a consumer level, for many of the people who need these drugs the most — the elderly, the low-income, students — drugs are becoming increasingly hard to get a hold of.
According to a report from the AARP Public Policy Institute, even generic drugs, which make up about 80 percent of the market, have been losing their thrifty nature. While the overall trend for the generic market has seen most drugs get cheaper, the rate at which they cheapened has lessened to only 4 percent on average in 2013 and medications for chronic illness didn’t budge at all. For comparison, generic prices dropped by 9.7 percent in 2010 and more than 11 percent in 2008.
The justification for all these increases is usually hidden by the companies who institute them, but the most often-used explanation is that the money funds research and development, or R&D, for new drugs.
For instance, back in September the drug Daraprim, used to treat the parasitic infection toxoplasmosis, increased in price some 5,400 percent from $13.50 to $750 — overnight. The CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, Martin Shkreli, said the increase was “[Turing] trying to stay in business.” He later attributed the increase wholly to research and development costs.
Though many have doubted Shkreli’s particular claim, the broader idea is not without its own merits.
A 2005 paper published in the Journal of Law and Economics found that for every 10-percent increase in funding there was an accompanying 6-percent increase in R&D funding. They also found that had the federal government limited price increases to follow inflation, the industry would have produced between 330 and 365 fewer new drugs between 1980 and 2001 and spent 30 percent less overall on R&D.
For student and UNR Neurological Society President Josh Regalado, the reasoning just doesn’t add up. Regalado believes the research should be about bettering humanity, not making profits.
“If people and corporations are profiteering off of [these increases], then it’s undermining some of the initiatives that these scientists have to create better drugs, to help the public out” Regalado said.
Regalado added that he’s skeptical that the money is being put into research. In his view, the researchers in the field constantly apply for grants and often don’t receive them. As a person studying the field, he just can’t see these billions of dollars being poured into independent research, though he does admit that no one really knows where the money goes.
The debate even reaches beyond scientists and doctors, down to the very consumers affected most by the price hikes.
Andrew Zaninovich, a political science student on campus, is primarily concerned that the increases could disproportionately affect students, the elderly and the low-income and is equally skeptical that the money is going to research.
“There is no legitimate explanation as to why these drugs continue to increase at such high rates,” Zaninovich said. “I think a lot of people these days are questioning whether or not it truly is about research and development, recouping your losses for that, or how much of it is just sheer profiteering.”
Zaninovich’s claim echoes the data, as across the country more and more people have become attuned to the dubious price increases.
On a broader scale, at least six states have pushed for cost transparency bills this summer that would force pharmaceutical companies to justify their price hikes. This is in addition to investigations from the Senate Finance Committee that demanded answers to why hepatitis C drugs produced by Gilead Sciences cost $1,000 per pill after the cost began to tax federal and state health programs.
It’s clear now that a lens of scrutiny is being held close to the goings-on of the pharmaceutical industry. However, only time will tell if the landscape will change at all under this newfound pressure.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.