Biotech and Pharma

Many Medicare drugs soared in price over past five years, new data reveals

Drug pressure deja vu?

If Donald Trump wanted any more ammunition for his intended battle to "bring down drug prices," he just got some new bullets.

The prices of many prescription medications for the nation's mammoth government-run Medicare program jumped sharply from 2011 through 2015, with double-digit percentage increases often seen, according to new data released by federal health officials.

Those price hikes included quadruple-digit percentage increases for many inexpensive medications, and triple-digit percentage increases for some pricier drugs.

"You've got specialty medications, which are going up by a large dollar amount, and you've got generic medications, which are going up by a large percentage amount," said Andy Slavitt, acting administrator for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which released pricing data on 5,000 drugs.

"Medicare is the largest buyer of drugs in the country, if not the world," but "ends up getting lower rebates" for drug purchases than many other health-coverage providers, Slavitt noted.

"And the taxpayer ends up being responsible for a greater portion of the payment," he said. "What you end up with is a situation where... drug companies can take prices up without any check on them or any negotiation from the federal government."

Medicare provides health coverage for more than 55 million people, most of whom are 65 years old or older. The system's Part D prescription drug benefit program spent $137.4 billion in 2015. The Part B program, which covers drugs administered to patients in doctor's offices and outpatient facilities, spent $24.6 billion.

By law, Medicare cannot negotiate the prices of drugs with sellers — in contrast to other health-coverage providers.

President-elect Trump, in an interview with Time magazine said, "I don't like what has happened to drug prices," and "I'm going to bring down drug prices," statements that sent stocks of drug makers plummeting Wednesday. He offered no specifics for how to achieve that goal.

While President Barack Obama has called for Congress to give Medicare the authority to negotiate drug prices, that idea has gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress. And it's not clear that the Republican Trump will have any more success with the legislative branch if he pushes that proposal himself.

Modern Health reported that a preliminary analysis by the publication found that the average prices of all Part D medications that were sold in both 2015 and 2011, the span covered by the new data, increased more than 83 percent.

But the average prices for the most commonly used drugs by Part D beneficiaries in both of those years actually dropped by 23.6 percent, Modern Health reported.

However, prices jumped an average of more than 59 percent for medications that account for most of Part D spending, according to the publication.

The price data does not include the value of rebates Medicare receives from drug sellers, which is confidential.

The largest increases in costs per unit for Part D drugs according to the new data was losartan potassium, which is used to treat hypertension. The price of that drug, often sold under the brand name Cozaar, increased by 491 percent in 2015.

For Part B drugs, the biggest cost-per-unit increase was seen in mitomycin, which treats cancer, and which jumped in price by 163 percent.