The mounting scrutiny of prescription drug prices in the U.S. reached fever pitch when a new drug for hepatitis C was priced at about $1,000 a day. Gilead Sciences' Sovaldi, approved in December, cures the viral liver infection in most cases. it takes about 12 weeks, and costs $84,000.
Health insurers as recently as this week have called the price astronomical and unsustainable. Sovaldi has become the poster child for the outcry over prescription drug prices: In March, Congress sent a letter to Gilead asking it to explain how it set Sovaldi's price, contributing to a swoon in biotech stocks over the following month as investors worried pricing may finally come under pressure in the U.S.
Sovaldi's not alone. Spending on specialty medicines, for diseases such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, helped boost total spending on prescription drugs last year 3.2 percent, to $329.2 billion, according to industry researcher IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. That followed a decline in spending in 2012 as cheaper generic copies of some brand-name drugs hit the market.
Cancer drugs, in particular, have seen prices soar. The average cost of a branded cancer medicine in the U.S. has doubled in the last decade, to about $10,000 a month, IMS said.
The rising prices have concerned some doctors, leading Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 2012 to make a bold move: It refused to prescribe the cancer drug Zaltrap, writing in a New York Times op-ed that the medicine provided no benefit to an older therapy, Avastin, yet cost twice as much. The maker of the drug, French pharma company Sanofi, subsequently halved the price.