The sky-high price hikes in medications from companies such as Turing Pharmaceuticals and Valeant Pharmaceuticals are far from anomalies in the pharmaceutical industry.
About one-third of Americans have been hit by an unexpected price increase in their medications during the past year, according to a recent poll by Consumer Reports. On average, the price hike was $39 per prescription, although one out of 10 consumers said they faced higher out-of-pocket costs of at least $100.
“We were absolutely shocked” by the finding that one-third of Americans were coping with higher medication costs, said Lisa Gill, an editor at Consumer Reports’ Best Buy Drugs. “We had anecdotal evidence, but we didn’t know to what degree. That represents millions of people.”
About four out of 10 Americans regularly take one prescription, and the average is five medications, she added.
While the increased costs might not seem like a lot to Americans with middle-class jobs and a healthy cash flow, it can be fairly devastating for seniors who are living on fixed incomes or who rely on Social Security checks for the bulk of their income. Clearly, Americans are feeling the pressure on their checkbooks, given that drugs used to treat common health issues ranging from asthma to allergies are among those with recent price increases. Prescription drug spending rose 12.6 percent last year, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Some presidential candidates, such as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, are vowing to tackle the high price of medications as part of their campaign promises. But in the meantime, drug costs continue to rise.
It’s not always the pharmaceutical company that’s to blame, Gill noted. Reasons for price increases can range from everything to drug shortages to an insurer dropping a previously covered medication, she said.
Here are four strategies recommended by Consumers Union’s Gill that consumers should try if they are hit with a suddenly painful drug price hike.
Shop around. “Not all pharmacies charge the same price,” Gill said. “If you are given a price at a pharmacy that’s higher than what you are accustomed to, step away from the pharmacy counter and make a few calls.”
The first call on your list should be Costco, if you have one near your home. A survey of drug prices that will be published next year by Consumer Reports found that Costco by and large has the lowest drug prices. One little known fact is that consumers don’t need a Costco membership to use the pharmacy.
Negotiate. “There is no other consumer product where you have an opportunity to negotiate other than homes and cars – and pharmaceuticals,” Gill said. “Ask for the lowest possible price.”
The hitch here is that it likely won’t work if you are paying with insurance or if you are Medicare part D and haven’t yet hit the “donut hole” -- the gap in drug coverage that kicks in once older Americans have spent up to a limit of $2,800 on medications.
Use your insurer’s preferred pharmacy. Many Americans aren’t aware that their health-care insurance companies pick pharmacies as their “preferred” providers, which means those drug stores may offer a lower price, Gill said. That also goes for Part D plans, she added.
Patient assistance programs. These programs are geared for people who aren’t insured or who are underinsured and are having trouble paying for medications, Gill said. Americans in this category can search for nearby programs, often run by their states or local governments, at Needymeds.org.