As Rx Prices Rise, More Say Meds Are Affordable

As Rx Prices Rise, More Say Meds Are Affordable

Nov. 13, 2015 — Medications are becoming more expensive for the sickest people, but at the same time, they’ve never been more affordable for the majority of Americans.

How is that possible?

We had an expert dig into some data for us, and he found that the number of people who say they’re having trouble affording their prescriptions is at its lowest level in about 10 years.

Joshua Gagne, PharmD, ScD, an assistant professor at Harvard, studies how drugs are used and paid for in large populations of people. We asked him if anyone was keeping track of drug affordability. It turns out that the CDC, in its National Health Interview Survey, has long asked Americans a question about how drug costs are hitting their wallets. Specifically, people are asked whether they were unable to fill a prescription in the last 12 months because of cost.

Gagne ran some numbers and found something unexpected. The percentage of Americans who say they haven’t filled a prescription in the last year because of cost is at its lowest level in a decade. In 2005, it was 9.33%. In 2014 — the latest year available for this statistic — it was 7.15%.

“At first glance, it was a little bit surprising to me, too,” Gagne says.

Recent headlines, after all, have been telling an entirely different story. Turing Pharmaceuticals and its CEO, Martin Shkreli, purchased the rights to an inexpensive older medication called Daraprim and hiked its price by 5000%.

And prescription drug spending is up 13% from 2013 to 2014, the largest such jump since 2001, according to IMS Health, a company that provides information and services to the health care industry. Some people who’ve long taken inexpensive pills are suddenly seeing double- and even triple-digit increases in their drug costs, often with no warning.

How is it possible, then, that more people seem able to afford their medications than ever before?

Experts say there are a few reasons.

Key Insights

For one thing, the CDC survey tells the story of averages. The number actually hides the experience of some of the sickest patients, like people who have cancer or cystic fibrosis, who need some of the most expensive drugs. For them, drug prices are crippling, yet because their meds represent a minority of all prescriptions filled, their experience really isn’t reflected in the overall number. Only about 2.3% of prescriptions have co-pays over $70, according to IMS Health.

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