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Economists Debate: Fight With or Adapt to Rising Drug Prices?

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Rising drug prices, the effect on the healthcare system, consumer push-back, and possible solutions were hotly debated during a panel at the 2016 National Health Policy Conference hosted by AcademyHealth in Washington, DC.

The discussion, High Cost Drugs: Where Regulations Meet Opportunities, was moderated by Tricia Neuman, PhD, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and director of the Foundation’s Program on Medicare Policy and its Project on Medicare’s Future. She was joined by 2 health economists and Lynn Quincy, director, Health Care Value Hub, a policy group at ConsumersUnion, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Drug costs are projected to rise at a fairly rapid pace, with a steep cliff,” said Neuman. Sharing research data generated by the KFF for the period 2013-2014, she said that drug prices are the fastest growing portion of health spending, with specialty medications leading the way. The Foundation’s study showed a 9-10% rise in the annual health spending on drugs, with a 10% increase in retail drugs as a share of the national health spending and 19% increase in spending by employer-based national health plans.

But what has most caught people’s attention, Newman said, is Medicare outpatient drug spending, which till 2014 was steady, but has been on the rise of late. “Sovaldi had an unanticipated impact on Medicare Part D spending rather than the projected Medicaid spending,” she said. “Agreed that the drug has long-term benefits, but we have a short-term issue at hand,” Newman added.

These high prices translate into increases in health plan deductibles and premiums. A consumer survey conducted by the Foundation found that 73% of the population deem prescription drug prices unreasonable and 74% of the surveyed population primarily blame the drug manufacturers for the high costs, ignoring the other players in the game.

The Consumer Expectation

Agreeing with the statistic, Quincy said that while consumers have faith in the value of pharmaceutical innovations, “The fact that more than 50% of Americans take prescription drugs regularly…so prices are top-of-mind for consumers.”

She listed a number of downstream effects of the high drug prices:

1. Patients do not follow the doctor’s prescription
2. Patients procrastinate seeking care
3. Patients avoid filling out or refilling prescriptions
4. Patients cut back on daily requirements to afford taking medications

Quincy offered a few solutions to help ease some of the issues:

1. Immediate financial solutions for patients. A few states are already in the process of adopting these changes:
a. Cap monthly out-of-pocket cost and avoid front-loading by spreading the overall cost of care across the entire year. This, however, does not address the underlying reason of high drug cost.

2. Increase pricing transparency. Make data available on what payers negotiate for drug prices with manufacturers, as is common practice in Europe. Price justification bills, Quincy said, are being explored around the country.

3. Increase payer’s ability to negotiate. Medicare should be allowed to negotiate on drug prices with manufacturers. She also suggested that private health payers should band together to negotiate. In case of a single manufacturer, however, state-set limits on drug prices would be the path to follow.

Quincy said that while the general population may not understand the nuances of these policies, they do expect changes that would impact the bottom line.

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Tyrone Squires, MBA, CPBS

I am the proud founder and managing director of TransparentRx, a fiduciary-model PBM based in Las Vegas, Nevada. We help health plan sponsors reduce pharmacy spend, by as much as 50%, without cutting benefits or shifting costs to employees.

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