Health and Science

Drug prices too high? Many blame pharma companies

Drug companies are going to need to take an aspirin—or three—after reading this.

A new poll finds that most Americans see drug prices as being unreasonably high—and that people are far more likely to blame drug makers than they are to point the finger at health insurance companies.

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A total of 73 percent of respondents to the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll said medication costs too much. And 76 percent of those people said that's because pharmaceutical companies set prices too high, according to the survey released Tuesday. (Tweet this)

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Just 10 percent said the prices are too high because insurers require people to directly pay an excessive share of the cost of their prescription drugs under their health plans.

The same percentage said that both insurers and drug companies are to blame for this state of affairs.

The findings come two months after another Kaiser poll found that the public was more concerned about drug-related costs than about other health issues, including Obamacare. In that survey, 76 percent said a top priority for the president and Congress should be to make sure that that high-cost drugs for chronic conditions are affordable to patients who use them, and that the government should take action to lower the prices of prescription drugs.

In the latest poll by Kaiser, a whopping 87 percent said they favored giving the federal government's Medicare program, which provides health care to the elderly, the ability to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers, a power Medicare now lacks.

Drug prices are "clearly on people's mind," said Mollyann Brodie, who is in charge of polling for the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Brodie said that isn't surprising, given the fact that half of the 1,200 people polled by Kaiser currently take prescription medicine. The poll had a margin of error of +/-3 percent.

"The thing about prescription drugs is it's the most tangible and frequent way a person interacts with the health-care system," said Brodie.

While most people surveyed in the latest poll (76 percent) said they could easily afford their medication, 21 percent said it was difficult to foot the bill. And 1 in 4 people currently taking prescription drugs have not filled a prescription in the past years as a result of cost, the poll found.

Drug costs have received widespread attention in recent years with the introduction of high-priced specialty medicines such as Gilead Sciences' hepatitis C drug Sovaldi, which costs $84,000 for a 12-week treatment.

Last week, Avalere Health released an analysis projecting that 10 "breakthrough" drugs in the pipeline now will by themselves cost the federal government $50 billion over the next decade.

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The insurance trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans, sponsored that research. AHIP has been engaged in a concerted public relations battle with drug companies over drug prices, which AHIP blames for increased insurance costs.

In reaction to the Kaiser poll released Thursday, AHIP spokeswoman Clare Krusing said, "Americans are growing increasingly frustrated by high drug prices that are relentlessly driving up premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Drug makers need to get the message."

"We've hit an inflection point, where there have been year-over-year price increases, and what that is leading to is, I think, is a very serious issue about access and affordability," Krusing said.

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If drug prices continue rising as they have been, it will become more difficult to ensure that patients who need certain medications get them, Krusing said. She added, there should be "more transparency around prescription drug pricing."

But Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the country's leading biopharmaceutical researchers and biotechnology companies, said the questions that Kaiser asked respondents in its survey failed to provide people with enough information on which to base their opinions, such as the cost drug companies incur in developing a new drug.

Zirkelbach cited a Tufts University study that found the cost of developing a new drug had more than doubled, from $1.2 billion in 2003 to $2.6 billion.

And he also noted how the design of a health plan by insurers can lead to customers directly paying for a greater share of drug costs than they previously did in the form of higher deductibles, co-payments and co-payments.

"What we know and what the data show is that patients are getting asked to pay an ever-greater share of their medicine costs," Zirkelbach said. "It's no wonder that patients feel that their medicine costs are going up and up."

"The trend we're seeing now goes too far," he said, referring to insurance plans shifting the burden of costs more toward customers in higher out-of-pocket limits.