Brand-Name Prescription Drug Prices Skyrocketing for Seniors

Megan Brooks

March 29, 2018

Over the past 5 years, the cost of many of the most popular brand-name prescription drugs used by older Americans increased at nearly 10 times the rate of inflation, according to a new report from US Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO).

"Can you imagine if you went to an auto dealership and last year's exact model was being sold at a 20 percent mark-up, and then you went back the next year and it had happened again?" McCaskill said in a news release. "That's exactly what's happening in the prescription drug industry, where the cost of identical drugs skyrockets year after year. This report demonstrates that the pricing decisions made by these drug companies are outrageous."  

At the request of McCaskill, minority staff of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs reviewed price increases for the 5-year-period, 2012 to 2017, across the top 20 most-prescribed brand-name drugs for seniors in the Medicare Part D program. 

Drugs making the list in 2015 included Advair Diskus (fluticasone/salmeterol), Crestor (rosuvastatin), Januvia (sitagliptin), Lantus/Lantus Solostar (insulin glargine), Lyrica (pregabalin), Nexium (esomeprazole), Nitrostat (nitroglycerin), Novolog (insulin aspart), Premarin (conjugated estrogens), Proair HFA (albuterol), Restasis (cyclosporine), Spiriva Handihaler (tiotropium), Symbicort (budesonide/formoterol), Synthroid (levothyroxine), Tamiflu (oseltamivir), Ventolin HFA (albuterol sulfate), Voltaren Gel (diclofenac), Xarelto (rivaroxaban), Zetia (ezetimibe), and Zostavax (zoster vaccine).

Among the report's key findings are the following:

  • Prices increased for every drug on the list between 2012 and 2017. On average, prices for these drugs increased 12% every year for the last 5 years — roughly 10 times higher than the average annual rate of inflation.

  • Twelve of the 20 most commonly prescribed brand-name drugs for seniors had price increases of over 50% during the 5-year period. Six of the 20 had price increases of over 100%. In one case, the weighted average wholesale acquisition cost for a single drug increased by 477% over 5 years.

  • Although 48 million fewer prescriptions were written for the top 20 most commonly prescribed brand-name drugs for seniors between 2012 and 2017, total sales revenue resulting from these prescriptions increased by almost $8.5 billion during the same period.

Out-of-Pocket Spending Rising

Soaring drug prices are driving up healthcare costs each year, the report notes. In 2016 alone, spending on prescription drugs topped $328 billion. According to the most recent National Heath Expenditure data published by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, retail prescription drug spending grew at an average pace of 4.8% between 2006 and 2015, with two of the highest-growth years occurring in 2014 and 2015 at 12.4% and 9.0%, respectively.

Even with Medicare coverage, many older individuals also face substantial out-of-pocket costs, particularly for specialty and brand-name drugs. According to one independent study, Medicare beneficiaries' out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs is expected to increase from 41% of per capita Social Security income in 2013 to 50% in 2030, the report notes.

In his first State of the Union address, President Donald J Trump pledged to work to reduce prescription drug prices. As reported by Medscape Medical News, the president said that drug prices are too high and said that one of his "greatest priorities" would be to find a way to bring them down, calling them "very, very unfair."

Trump added, "That is why I have directed my administration to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of my top priorities for the year. And prices will come down substantially.  Watch."

McCaskill has made tackling rising healthcare and prescription drug costs a top priority in the Senate. She joined Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) to launch an in-depth investigation into prescription drug price increases and recently introduced legislation to end taxpayer subsidies to end taxpayer subsidies drug companies receive for the billions of dollars they spend on prescription drug advertising each year, which currently is fully tax-deductible.

In addition, McCaskill's bipartisan legislation to boost competition for generic drugs and help lower prescription costs was signed into law by Trump. McCaskill has also introduced legislation with Collins to prohibit pharmacy gag laws that lead to consumers overpaying for prescription drugs.

The full report, "Manufactured Crisis: How Devastating Drug Price Increases Are Harming America's Seniors," is available online.

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