Opinion

When It Comes to the Drug Pricing Debate, Talk Is Cheap

In the last several months, individual companies have begun to take actions in an attempt to address pricing concerns and demonstrate their ability to “self-police” — especially in the face of bad actors that have fueled hatred of the pharmaceutical industry by taking significant price increases on single-source products.

These actions have ranged from taking pledges to limit annual price increases to improving transparency of pricing — including disclosing price increases, entering into value-based pricing schemes and devising innovative partnerships to lower the cost of certain medicines for patients — to entering into new partnerships to provide discounts on the medicines they sell at the pharmacy.

But the question remains — to what extent have or will these actions actually make a difference in how these companies are perceived by the public and by legislators? What is the potential benefit of these various actions for reputation, for gaining a seat at the table in policy discussions or for fighting off damaging state and federal legislation — compared to the potential risk of maintaining the status quo? Is staying out of the news enough, or are proactive actions required?

APCO Worldwide recently conducted opinion research to try and answer these questions and to understand what actions may be most helpful in positively positioning pharmaceutical companies in the current debate on drug pricing. Specifically, we asked stakeholders — including the opinion-leading public, health care providers and policymakers — what actions most demonstrate companies are doing the “right thing” when it comes to access and affordability.

So what moves the needle the most? We found that stakeholders want to see companies demonstrate that they have patients’ best interests in mind, act as an advocate to improve access and affordability. What actions accomplish this?

1.) Advocate for policies aimed at improving access to medicines – Companies must have a point of view on how to improve access and affordability for patients, and publicly advocate for that position.

2.) Partner to improve access – Stakeholders like to see companies working with others in the system — health insurers, pharmacy benefit managers or others — to improve access to patients. This suggests innovative discount programs that have recently been implemented by companies to reduce prices to patients at the pharmacy are widely viewed as positive.

3.) Share details on how medicines are priced — Transparency, transparency, transparency. Even if it doesn’t change how prices are determined, stakeholders expect to see companies disclosing more information about how their medicines are priced. Transparency helps improve trust and demonstrates companies are not taking advantage of patients or the system.

On the flip side, our research also showed the actions that don’t break through, or that can make things worse.

Interestingly, we found that maintaining the status quo will not be enough to address stakeholder concerns. Specifically, companies have increasingly tried to communicate that they negotiate with payers to help improve access — something that has been done in the industry for a long time — but this activity is not viewed especially favorably. Nor are the access programs that provide free or discounted medicines to patients in need — programs which companies have long touted.

Bottom line: Communicating more while continuing to do the same things will not help quell the ongoing criticism.

And finally, the worst companies can do? Get called out as a bad actor. Whether for taking large price increases or launching a medicine with a high price, giving large bonuses or salaries to senior executives or making exceptionally high profits, media coverage of these actions is distinctly viewed by stakeholders as doing “the wrong thing.”

While concerns about pricing are unlikely to dissipate in the near future, these results clearly demonstrate that there are several “right things” companies can do to address concerns.

The catch? Companies must be past the point of relying on words alone, and be willing to take concrete action that either directly alleviates patients’ pocketbook pains or addresses the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the high cost of drugs everyone is hearing about.

Over the last year, we’ve seen several companies take steps aimed at doing just that — from efforts meant to clarify their approaches to pricing to those engaging unique partnerships to provide additional discounts at the pharmacy counter.

In the end, our research suggests it will be these same companies that are increasingly able to move the needle and meaningfully engage in the pricing debate moving forward.


Chrystine Zacherau is a senior director with APCO Insight, the opinion research group at APCO Worldwide, and manages APCO Insight’s global health care research. April Claassen is a director of health policy in APCO Worldwide’s Washington, D.C., office and works with APCO’s health care clients.

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