Americans want lower prescription prices, but not if it means fewer drugs, survey finds

  • Americans favor more regulation in Washington if it comes with lower prescription drug prices, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
  • Consumer feelings change if the tighter oversight hurts research and development.
  • About 90 percent of those surveyed agree with Trump plans to require drug companies to include list prices in ads and to ease development of generic drugs.
A pharmacist collects medications for prescriptions at a pharmacy.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A pharmacist collects medications for prescriptions at a pharmacy.

Americans are increasingly in favor of more federal regulation to rein in drug prices, including letting the government negotiate directly with drugmakers for the Medicare program, according to a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Yet the poll also found that respondents are leery of potential consequences.

About 90 percent respondents to the health tracking survey favor two measures proposed by the Trump administration: requiring drug companies to include list prices in their advertising and making it easier for generic drugs to come to market. Kaiser surveyed 1,440 adults from Feb. 14 through Feb. 24.

A large majority also want Washington to go further when it comes to drugs for Medicare patients. Eighty-six percent support allowing the government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare, with 90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans favoring the measure.

Partisan split

There's much less consensus on direct negotiations in Washington. While House Democrats have introduced a bill requiring the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to negotiate with drugmakers directly for Medicare Part D drug plans, opposition is strong among Republicans.

"I don't want the government negotiating," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told CNBC, adding that he opposes the Trump administration's proposal to bring Medicare drug prices closer to those paid by other industrial countries by using an international price benchmark.

"I want (prices) negotiated in the free market — I want a willing buyer and a willing seller to make that decision," said Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Limiting research

During the committee's drug price hearing last week, AbbVie CEO Richard Gonzalez admitted that American consumers pay higher prices than people in other countries for his company's flagship arthritis drug Humira, but he maintained that dramatically cutting prices in the United States would effectively limit the company's ability to fund innovation and research into new treatments.

"Our system is built around a variety of pricing, around the world, but that overall system supports our R&D model," Gonzalez said.

The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, had a withering rebuke for that argument.

"If lower prices would diminish R&D, why don't costly dividends? Why don't stock buybacks? Is the stock price more important than inventing the next miracle cure?" Widen asked.

Less innovation?

But the potential for less innovation is an issue that resonates in the recent Kaiser tracking poll.

Support for price negotiation dropped from 86 percent to just 31 percent if government price negotiations could hurt research and development. Support dropped just as sharply when presented with the argument that it could lead to Medicare not covering some prescription drugs.

A decade ago, a similar question on a Kaiser tracking poll found that nearly 48 percent supported increased price regulations even if it might lead to less R&D.

In the current era when new immunotherapy drugs have led to greater success in treating some cancers, and there is a growing need for innovative treatments for diseases like Alzheimer's, Americans may be less willing to make that trade off. They just want Washington to find a way to make drugs now more affordable.