Drug prices steadily rise amid pandemic, data shows

Drugmakers raised the price of hundreds of medicines during the coronavirus pandemic, even in the face of Trump administration vows to crack down on surging drug costs and efforts to tack price controls on Covid-19 relief packages.

Pharmaceutical companies logged more than 800 price increases this year, and adjusted the cost of 42 medicines upward by an average of 3.3 percent so far in July, according to GoodRx, which tracks the prices consumers pay at pharmacies. While the size of that increase is not out of line with past years, the number of branded drugs seeing hikes this month was higher than last year.

Three treatments for patients with respiratory illnesses but not specifically the coronavirus — Bevespi Aerosphere, Daliresp and Tyvaso — saw hikes of 5 percent, 6 percent and 4.5 percent respectively. Tyvaso’s increases over the year total 12.8 percent and bring its list price to $18,111.22.

“Business as usual is a problem in a pandemic. These price increases contribute nothing to innovation, but greatly to suffering. These aren’t new drugs,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of the Global Access to Medicines Program at consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

Significant hikes this month also include AstraZeneca’s six percent increase on heartburn medicine Nexium — to $265.84 for a month’s supply — despite the product being on the market for years and having several generic rivals. Two medicines for childhood ADHD with no generic competitors also saw increases of up to 10 percent.

Drugmakers generally raise prices twice a year, in January and at mid-year. But some have delayed or staggered increases amid increased scrutiny and the fear of catching President Donald Trump’s eye.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has signaled the president could issue an executive order as soon as this week that will include measures aimed at high prescription drug costs.

Trump campaigned on a pledge to slash high prescription drug costs, saying days ahead of his inauguration that pharmaceutical companies were “getting away with murder.” He later publicly blasted Pfizer for raising prices on 41 medicines in July 2018. Pfizer said at the time it would delay those hikes for six months or until the president implemented parts of his sweeping drug pricing blueprint

The drugmaker took those expected hikes the next January.

The Trump administration meanwhile has struggled to push some of its drug pricing agenda. A court killed one rule that required drugmaker television ads to include prices. Another rule to eliminate the rebates drugmakers give to payers — which manufacturers blame for rising costs — stalled last year over concerns it would raise seniors’ insurance premiums. A third plan to benchmark U.S. prices for certain medicines to lower prices paid abroad drew flak from conservatives who likened it to price controls.

GoodRx’s analysis doesn’t include physician-administered medicines — such as pricey infusions for cancer and arthritis — so there were likely other cost increases that weren’t reflected in the data. Drugmakers are likely to make other price changes throughout this month, as well.

Industry lobby PhRMA said that GoodRx’s data presents a false narrative “by focusing solely on list prices and ignoring the dynamics of the biopharmaceutical market that control medicine spending.”

List prices, or the sticker cost of a medicine, do not incorporate rebates, discounts and other concessions that pharmaceutical companies give to payers to ensure preferential coverage of products. Those concessions totaled $175 billion in 2019 according to SSR Health, but also typically ensured that drugs would be covered and sometimes given preference over rivals in their category.

PhRMA spokesperson Katie Koziara said that research from health data company IQVIA shows that overall price increases are below annual inflation. “However, it often doesn’t feel that way for patients,” Koziara said in a statement. “We need to fix the health care system so it works better for patients by making sure rebates and discounts are shared with patients at the pharmacy counter and making insurance work like insurance again.”

The Trump administration last year abandoned a plan to eliminate manufacturer rebates and shift to an option of passing discounts to patients due to concerns the change would raise seniors’ premiums in Medicare Part D. Several outspoken critics of the rebate rule, such as former White House domestic policy adviser Joe Grogan and former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, have since left the administration.

The biggest price hikes logged so far this month have been for the ADHD medicine Adzenys XR and the so-called female Viagra known as Addyi. Neos Therapeutics, maker of the chewable sweet-flavored Adzenys, raised its price by 10 percent. The drug’s average cash price is $439 for a month’s supply, according to GoodRx.

Ironshore Pharmaceuticals also made a 6.1 percent increase to the price for ADHD medicine Jornay PM.

Addyi manufacturer Sprout Pharmaceuticals raised the pill’s price by 9.3 percent to a new list price of $478 for a month’s supply. Though FDA approved Addyi in 2015, it has struggled to gain popularity and the drugmaker halved its price to $400 in 2018.

Some increases are just the latest in years of steady hikes. Biogen bumped the price of multiple sclerosis medicine Tysabri by 3.5 percent this month, the same margin by which it raised the medicine twice in 2019.

Dynavax raised the price for its adult hepatitis B vaccine, Heplisav-B, by 4.7 percent to $120.

“In general, drugs that increase in price are specialty drugs that few people take. But the majority of them were already expensive and only continue to increase in price,” wrote Tori Marsh, GoodRx’s health insights analyst. The company will continue to track price changes throughout the month.

Critics have been quick to blast the recent bout of price hikes. The industry “is sticking with the industry’s business-as-usual, price-hiking playbook,” said Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing Executive Director Lauren Aronson in a statement. “Engaging in price hikes during a pandemic, while receiving billions of dollars from taxpayers to help develop COVID-19 treatments, demonstrates why policymakers must act,” she added.

Four House Democrats and a Republican recently introduced a pair of bills addressing drug prices and pricing transparency, but in both cases they target Covid-19 treatments and vaccines, not the industry as a whole. The MMAPPP Act, sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), would bar market exclusivity for taxpayer-funded Covid-19 drugs and require the federal government to assure affordable prices; the TRACK Act, sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) would create a database of federally funded research for Covid-19 treatments, including the terms of agreements with manufacturers.

Manufacturers have received more than a billion dollars from the U.S. government to develop coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

A broader legislative effort in the Senate Finance Committee sponsored by Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) faltered recently after Grassley accused Democrats of walking away from what was once a bipartisan measure. The bill would have fined drugmakers that increased prices above inflation, but many Senate Republicans balked at applying that measure to Medicare Part D medicines — or those doled out at a pharmacy.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated the number of drugs whose price was adjusted upward in July and the average percent increase.

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