As the 2020 presidential campaign kicks off, we can expect to hear a lot about out-of-control prescription drug prices. On one level, that’s fair enough. They remain high— way too high.
For example, Axios reported earlier this month that drugmakers have jacked up prices of a bunch of drugs to ring in the new year. AbbVie’s extensively used Humira (which seems to treat everything from arthritis to Crohn’s disease) will cost 6.2 percent more this year. Allergan’s dry-eye treating Restasis will cost almost 10 percent more. And Hikma Pharmaceuticals’ injectable morphine will cost a full 10 percent more. Politico reports that Oxycontin is getting pricier, too, which potentially could spur the heroin/fentanyl market leading to more addiction to street drugs and more overdoses.
But on another level, it paints an inaccurate picture. Yes, all of this sounds like really bad news. Except, it turns out, it could have been worse. Way worse. And one reason it hasn’t been worse is… Donald Trump.
Last weekend, health care industry publication STAT News purported to take a hatchet to President Trump’s record on drug prices, but they indirectly ended up making the case that Trump has actually delivered on drug prices— and not by just a little. By a lot. In fact, STAT called Trump’s results “a historic feat.” Really.
To support his claim of a price drop, Trump asserted that Americans saved $26 billion on prescription drugs during the first 19 months of his administration. The $26 billion figure comes from an October report published by the White House Council of Economic Advisors, which stated in part: “We find that growth in relative drug prices has slowed since January 2017, that generic drugs are being approved at a particularly rapid pace, and that savings from new generic entrants totaled about $26 billion as of July 2018.”
The report argued that “relative growth” in drug prices has slowed — not that there has been a broad-based decline in prices. It is true that Trump’s FDA has approved a record number of generic drugs, after instituting policies to speed such drugs to market.
That is, indeed, a historic feat.
It’s also one of the reasons, beyond the insanity that is the current Democratic Party (see: Sanders, Bernie; Warren, Elizabeth; Ocasio-Cortez, Alexandria; Pelosi, Nancy; Tlaib, Rashida; and on and on), why people who supported Trump in 2016 remain loyal to him. He has, in fact, delivered on things like this that his voters care about.
Another iteration of this: At the end of 2018, the Trump administration announced that it would be setting ceiling price regulations on drugs in the 340B prescription drug program and setting up a transparency database related to those drugs’ prices. As a reminder, 340B is a non-taxpayer-funded program under which Big Pharma has to offer discounts on drugs for poorer patients in exchange for getting access to entitlement money (which they lobbied to expand with Obamacare and Medicare Part D).
Big Pharma doesn’t like that under Trump, drug prices are being held down and products like biosimilars and generics are grabbing more market share (if you want to know how much a bunch of them hate biosimilars, go read this). But according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the health care industry— including Big Pharma in good measure— spends $30 billion a year on marketing — i.e., those annoying pharmaceutical ads on TV — and pressuring doctors to prescribe their drug, not the cheaper one that works just as well.
Maybe if Big Pharma is so terribly upset about its theoretical profit margin being cut by things like the president using the bully pulpit to hold drug prices down, more generic drugs hitting the market, and drug discount programs, they could spend less on marketing and pocket the change. At least then, we’d all be subjected to fewer commercials telling us about the wonderful osteoporosis prevention drug that might also make our heads fall off— a small side-effect that shouldn’t prevent us from demanding a prescription right now, from our doctors, obviously.