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No end in sight to rising drug prices, study finds

Researchers say bold bipartisan action is needed to stem the rising cost of popular prescription drugs that treat cancer, diabetes and other conditions.

The cost of many popular prescription drugs has increased substantially in the U.S. in the past six years, and the trend may continue if bold bipartisan action isn’t taken, according to a study published Friday.

The study, in the journal JAMA Network Open, found a substantial industry-wide rise in insurer and out-of-pocket costs for top-selling, brand-name prescription drugs, highlighting one of the foremost problems in health care today: unimpeded price increases in the pharmaceutical market.

In the study, researchers from the Scripps Research Translational Institute analyzed Blue Cross Blue Shield pharmacy claims from 2012 to 2017, focusing on a total of 49 brand-name drugs that had more than 100,000 total claims each.

All but one of the drugs included in the study saw regular annual or biannual cost increases. The cost of 36 of the drugs increased over the six-year period by more than 50 percent, and the cost of 16 more than doubled. Overall, the median cost of the drugs included in the study increased 76 percent.

Insulin drugs such as Novolog, Humalog and Lantus and rheumatology drugs such as Humira and Enbrel had some of the largest increases in costs. The price of Humira, for example, rose from $1,940 in January 2012, to $4,338 by December 2017.

“Given the median annual cost increase of 9.5 percent, our results suggest the costs for popular brand-name drugs would double every 7 to 8 years,” the researchers wrote. What’s more, competition didn’t seem to stymie costs: Popular diabetes drugs like Humalog and Novolog continued to see large price increases despite doctors’ ability to prescribe them interchangeably.

And the researchers do not believe that this trend will slow or stop any time soon.

“Because most products displayed continual, marked annual increases throughout the observation window, we expect these products to continue along this price escalation course, along with emerging products,” the authors said.

The findings also suggest that prices of brand-name drugs are not largely affected by the availability of generic versions or bio-similar products.

Recent big pharma trends show that the cost of drugs for common conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and cancer will continue to soar, even as Congress investigates rising costs in medicine and the systems that allow for it. In 2018, Novartis raised prices on more than 30 different classes of drugs, from 4.5 percent to 9.9 percent. These drugs included the multiple sclerosis drug Gilenya, the psoriatic arthritis treatment Cosentyx, and the leukemia treatment Tasigna.

Major pharmaceutical companies aren’t in a rush to curb soaring drug prices, either.

In February, top executives from seven major pharmaceutical companies told a Senate committee that they could not commit to lowering the prices of commonly used prescription drugs even as they admitted that they control these prices. One executive even acknowledged that the high cost of medicine hits poorest patients the hardest.

The “list price” of drugs has long been a topic of interest, and the artificial sale prices set by the drug companies have recently become a popular point of discussion in Congress. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in March found that a large majority of Americans from both parties supports steps to control prescription drug costs, including showing prices in ads, removing barriers to generic drugs and allowing patients to get less expensive drugs from Canada.

Dr. Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and a senior study author, and Nathan Wineinger, the lead study author and an associate professor in the department of integrative structural and computational biology at Scripps, wrote that innovative solutions have the potential to find appropriate price points for patients while rewarding drug manufacturers that produce transformative products. However, it’s important for the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry to look at the abuses taking place within the current system.

“The United States provides drug companies with the strongest patent protections in the world, but legal strategies in the pharmaceutical industry … abuse that liberty,” the researchers wrote. “Reasonable drug costs for consumers must be balanced with incentives in the pharmaceutical industry to produce innovative drugs that improve and save lives.”