Prescription drugs play an ever-increasing role in modern medicine. New medications are improving health outcomes and quality of life, replacing surgery and other invasive treatments, and quickening recovery for patients who receive these treatments.
Like health care generally, cost and access to prescription medications is complicated. Drug spending is about 10 percent of all health care spending, roughly $300 billion per year. Pharmaceutical companies argue that government regulation, the complexities of drug testing and lengthy timeline of getting a drug to market coupled with shareholder expectations for dividends drive prescription drug costs. Others argue pharmaceutical companies manipulate the regulations to maximize profit at public expense.
Three areas in particular deserve attention. First is the rising cost of scores of generic drugs. A 2014 survey by the National Community Pharmacist Association found that many essential generic drugs have risen by as much as 600%, 1,000% or more. Two such drugs include digoxin used to treat heart disease (first referenced in medical literature in 1785 â€“ yes, 1785) and tetracycline, a common antibiotic. Both medications went from costing just pennies a day to more than a dollar a pill, sometimes as much as $9.00/pill.
A second area is the dramatic expense of some new drugs including a new vaccine for hepatitis C, diabetes and cancer drugs. (EXPAND)
The third area that deserves focus is the use of pharmacy benefit managers by insurers and health plans to control the cost of prescription drugs. While a useful tool, too often it becomes just one more layer of complexity as negotiations between the pharmaceutical companies and insurers are in flux.