Soaring Prescription Drug Costs: Why the Price Just Isn’t Right

A recent public opinion poll revealed that “77 percent of Americans believe that the prices of prescription drugs are unreasonable.” Research also shows that “7 out of 10 Americans, including two-thirds of Republicans, said Medicare [...] should be able to negotiate lower prices for all prescription drugs.” Statistics like these should make implementing a plan to combat high drug prices no problem, right? The problem, though is that some of the plans that have been proposed won’t just fail...they’ll actually end up making things worse. 

This is where NWHN comes in, with our strong history as an FDA watchdog. For decades, NWHN has been holding the Food and Drug Administration accountable, fighting back against the outsized influence of Big Pharma, and shedding light on decisions and policies that would harm women's health. When the current head of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, announced his plan to decrease drug prices by deregulating the FDA, NWHN knew it was time to speak out. 

In a recent statement, Gottlieb outlined what he believed to be the answer for lowering drug prices: modifying the FDA’s drug regulatory process so that pharmaceutical companies can get generic drugs approved more rapidly. As these generics reached the market, he claimed, competition would cause drug prices to decrease. But this competitive marketplace model is not necessarily the reality. Instead, the prices of many generic drugs are skyrocketing. In 2014, “eight of the 10 drugs that had the biggest percentage price hikes [...] were generic medicines made by multiple manufacturers.”

The changing cost of Doxycycline hyclate, a widespread generic antibiotic, provides a cautionary tale. From October of 2013 to April of 2014, the antibiotic’s price “soared from $20 for 500 capsules [...] to a staggering $1,849.” Unfortunately, Doxycycline hyclate’s story is only one of many. A 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office study showed that, “More than 300 of the 1,441 established generic drugs analyzed had at least one extraordinary price increase of 100 percent or more between first quarter 2010 and first quarter 2015.” Gottlieb wants Americans to believe that an increase of generics can help the marketplace regulate itself, but data shows that these generics’ “extraordinary price increases generally persisted for at least 1 year and most had no downward movement after the extraordinary price increase.”

While Gottlieb asserted that this new, accelerated generic drug approval process would not compromise safety, in actuality, this plan would only benefit Pharma, providing it with an opportunity to capitalize on drugs that are semi-screened or have potential labeling-issues (problems that often arise with fast-tracked, less regulated drugs.)

Gottlieb is prepared to undercut the regulatory power of the FDA in favor of big pharma rather than truly address the corruption within the pharmaceutical industry. 

Unsurprisingly, the pharmaceutical companies themselves often combat high drug pricing accusations with claims that the price increases are due to an increase in research and development spending, or spending that goes towards medical innovation. But that explanation just doesn’t add up when you crunch the numbers. In 2016, STAT News reported that, over the span of four years, pharmaceutical companies’ ad spending rocketed up by 60%, coming in at 5.2 billion dollars in 2015. Startlingly, a quarter of that $5.2 billion went toward campaigns for six prominent drugs.

Incorporating more generic drugs onto the market must be done responsibly. Above all, the health and safety of patients cannot become a casualty of our fight for more affordable drugs. Gottlieb and the pharmaceutical industry might be content with stripping back regulations and weakening the FDA’s control, but NWHN will fight for a plan that truly benefits American patients. In the midst of harmful proposals, a variety of efforts by fellow organizations to responsibly review generics, as well as the recent anti-price gouging legislation in the Maryland legislature, give us hope for the future. We must lower drug prices, but we must never lower our standards.

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