Opinion

Americans Agree: It’s Time to Do Something About High Drug Prices

American families have long carried the financial burden of skyrocketing prescription drug prices.  In fact, the U.S. pays the highest prices for prescription drugs in the world – nearly four times higher on average than similarly situated countries. When a heavy price tag is tacked on to prescription drugs, it’s increasingly common to see patients forfeit their essential medications due to cost, which can be a matter of life and death.

Two-thirds of American voters believe Big Pharma puts profits before people and has left too many Americans unable to afford medications they need to survive according to a new survey by the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing. This was echoed in a separate poll from Gallup and West Health which found that more than 13 percent of American adults – or about 34 million people – report knowing of at least one friend or family member in the past five years who died after not receiving needed medical treatment, including prescription drugs, because they were unable to pay for it.

Unfortunately, anxiety surrounding drug pricing has only been heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, with 9 in 10 Americans saying they are concerned that the big pharmaceutical companies will leverage the coronavirus pandemic to log price hikes on lifesaving drugs. Despite the vast uncertainty and financial hardships that millions are facing in light of the public health crisis, that’s exactly what the pharmaceutical industry is doing.

At the beginning of this year, major pharmaceutical companies conducted the first of two annual price hikes on prescription drugs, raising prices on more than 600 drugs at an average of 5.2 percent. Since the beginning of July – right on time for their Summer biennial price hikes – major pharmaceutical companies moved forward with cost increases-as-usual by raising prices on at least 42 brand name drugs, seemingly unaware of the negative impacts this will have on American patients who are already strapped for cash as well as the consequences to the overall economy and healthcare industry. Big Pharma continues to focus on growing their profit margins despite the fact that more than 80 percent of Americans believe major pharmaceutical companies should suspend all prescription drug price hikes as we recover from COVID-19.

Yet Congress remains gridlocked, with the parties going in different directions on solving high drug prices. Americans cannot wait any longer. Fortunately, there are modest and bipartisan solutions that strike a balance between competition and innovation. These solutions, which involve fixing the broken patent system, will stop drug companies from gaming the system to block competition, competition that is often already being enjoyed in other countries. This competition would mean important older drugs will drop in price by 80 percent on average. A good start.

Our nation’s drug policy is built on the idea that innovative new medicines are rewarded with a limited monopoly, but then generic competition must enter to bring prices down. Some companies have discovered ways to break that deal and extend their monopolies indefinitely. This was highlighted most recently in a new report by I-MAK, which outlined how AbbVie has abused the patent system to prevent competition for a critical cancer treatment drug, Imbruvica. As Stat News reported, “since the first patent application was filed in 2006, the drug has been the subject of a blizzard of applications that has yielded no less than 88 patents. In fact, more than half of the 165 applications were filed after Food and Drug Administration approval in 2013, and most of those cover different indications or formulations, not the active ingredient in the drug itself.”

With real reforms, fairness and competition could be restored. Generic competition has a proven track record of dramatically reducing drug prices. In 2017 alone, savings from generics in the United States totaled $265.1 billion. These savings can be increased if we unlock competition for important older drugs.

Patient access and affordability are just as important to Americans as the research and development that produces new treatments of diseases. After all, patients can only take the drugs they can afford. Patent incentives are important, but so is the competition that is supposed to come after a patent expires. Without sensible patent laws, abusers of the system will continue reaping more than their fair share of the financial benefits while patients suffer with limited and expensive choices. Americans can’t wait; these modest and bipartisan patent fixes must pass now.

Matthew Lane is the executive director of the Coalition Against Patent Abuse.

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