Drug makers say they have valid business reasons for the price increases. Critics say the industry is trying to establish a higher price base before Congress passes legislation that tries to curb drug spending in coming years.
“When we have major legislation anticipated, we see a run-up in price increases,” says Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, a professor of pharmaceutical economics at the University of Minnesota. He has analyzed drug pricing for AARP, the advocacy group for seniors that supports the House health care legislation that the drug industry opposes.
A Harvard health economist, Joseph P. Newhouse, said he found a similar pattern of unusual price increases after Congress added drug benefits to Medicare a few years ago, giving tens of millions of older Americans federally subsidized drug insurance. Just as the program was taking effect in 2006, the drug industry raised prices by the widest margin in a half-dozen years.
“They try to maximize their profits,” Mr. Newhouse said.
But drug companies say they are having to raise prices to maintain the profits necessary to invest in research and development of new drugs as the patents on many of their most popular drugs are set to expire over the next few years.
“Price adjustments for our products have no connection to health care reform,” said Ron Rogers, a spokesman for Merck , which raised its prices about 8.9 percent in the last year, according to a stock analyst’s report.
This year’s increases mean the average annual cost for a brand-name prescription drug that is taken daily would be more than $2,000 — $200 higher than last year, Professor Schondelmeyer said.
And this means that the cost of many popular drugs has risen even faster. Merck, for example, now sells daily 10-milligram pills of Singulair, the blockbuster asthma drug, at a wholesale price of $1,330 a year — $147 more than last year. Singulair is now selling at retail, on drugstore.com, for nearly $1,478 a year.
The drug companies “can charge what they want — it’s not fair,” Eric White, the 42-year-old owner of a small jewelry store in Queens, said as he left a pharmacy recently.
Despite having drug insurance, Mr. White says he now pays $110 a month out of pocket for two brand-name allergy medicines, even as he has cut prices in his jewelry store by at least 40 percent to keep customers coming through the door.
He shook his head. “What can I do?” he said. “I need my medicines.”
The drug industry has actively opposed some of the cost-cutting provisions in the House legislation, which passed Nov. 7 and aims to cut drug spending by about $14 billion a year over a decade.
But the drug makers have been proudly citing the agreement they reached with the White House and the Senate Finance Committee chairman to trim $8 billion a year — $80 billion over 10 years — from the nation’s drug bill by giving rebates to older Americans and the government. That provision is likely to be part of the legislation that will reach the Senate floor in coming weeks.
But this year’s price increases would effectively cancel out the savings from at least the first year of the Senate Finance agreement. And some critics say the surge in drug prices could change the dynamics of the entire 10-year deal.
“It makes it much easier for the drug companies to pony up the $80 billion because they’ll be making more money,” said Steven D. Findlay, senior health care analyst with the advocacy group Consumers Union.
Name-brand prices have risen even as prices of widely used generic drugs have fallen by about 9 percent in the last year, Professor Schondelmeyer said. But name brands account for 78 percent of total prescription drug spending in this country. And as long as a name-brand drug still has patent protection it faces no price competition from generics.
Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the industry association — the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — criticized the analysis Professor Schondelmeyer had conducted for AARP, saying it was politically motivated.
“In AARP’s skewed view of the world, medicines are always looked at as a cost and never seen as a savings — even though medicines often reduce unnecessary hospitalization, help avoid costly medical procedures and increase productivity through better prevention and management of chronic diseases,” he said.
But Professor Schondelmeyer’s analysis — which found prices for the name-brand drugs most widely used by the Medicare population rising by 9.3 percent in the last year, the fastest rate since 1992 — is in line with the findings of a leading Wall Street analyst, too.