High cost of drugs:
US looks to provide
relief for patients

With the prices for some common generic medicines soaring over the past 18 months, state and federal lawmakers are trying to find relief for patients struggling to pay.

On Thursday, a Senate panel convened to investigate price increases for generic drugs. Separately, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and John McCain will revive stalled legislation to allow some prescription imports from Canada. And Maine is testing out a hotly contested new law that allows its residents to buy drugs from overseas, flouting U.S. policy.

One half of generic medicines went up in price...

between last summer and this summer; about 10 percent more than doubled in cost in that time, with some common medicines rising by over 500 percent, new data released in connection with a Congressional hearing found. These include thyroid replacement hormone, the antibiotic doxycycline, the heart pill digoxin and the asthma pill albuterol.

"Generics have played an important role in making medicine affordable for millions of people," said Sen.Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, who held this week's hearing with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. "I worry that we're seeing the end of that now," Sanders said in a telephone interview. "This should be highlighted and remedied."

Because the United States does not regulate drug pricing or negotiate prices nationally like other countries...

generic medicines have long been a safety valve for American patients, allowing them to obtain needed medicines at lower costs. Brand name medicines are granted patent protection for a number of years after they enter the market. Historically, after the patent expires, generic copies have entered the fray, bringing prices down, often sharply.

But that pattern is changing, researchers and policymakers say.

The cost of many generic medications has increased so much during the past year that prices for many common generic drugs in the United States have surpassed those of their brand name equivalents in other developed countries, a new analysis by the website Pharmacychecker, which guides patients in the mail order purchase of medications, has found.

For example, a 90-day supply of the generic heart medicine digoxin sells for $187 in New York; the branded version, Lanoxin, sells for $24.30 in Canada. A month's supply of a generic steroid to treat inflammatory bowel disease sells for $1,625 in the United States, while the branded version sells for $155.70 in Canada. A three-month supply of the generic cholesterol lowering drug pravastatin costs $230 in this country, but $31.50 for the branded drug Pravachol in Canada.

Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the time was right for legislation as drug costs have risen, while salaries have not.

"The economy has stabilized but it's really hard for the middle class to get by, and this is a glaring example of where we are so out of line with other countries," she said in a phone interview. "One solution is to let some competition in from over the border."

There are many reasons that generic prices may fluctuate...

The price of a key ingredient may increase markedly, or competition may decrease as manufacturers leave a market, leading to price rises.

Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, a pharmaceutical economist at the University of Minnesota, spoke of the current "Wild, Wild West of drug pricing," adding, "I believe in markets, but this market is broken; it's failing."

He noted that for generics, "the trend is going up rather than down, as we'd expect, and not just 2 or 5 percent but by hundreds or even thousands of percent." Brand-name medicines have increased in price as well, by an average of 12.9 percent in 2013, he said.

Ralph G. Neas, president of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, said that the congressional committee had overstated the rise in generic drug prices in its calculations. He said that overall, generic drugs had saved Americans $1.46 trillion in the past decade, and $239 billion in 2013, compared with the price of brand drugs.

The idea of allowing Americans to import drugs from Canada or other developed countries is strongly opposed by the powerful US pharmaceutical industry...

Importation even for personal use is generally illegal under Food and Drug Administration regulations. Such medicines may be impounded at the border, although the law is rarely enforced.

With the federal government slow to come to the table on the issue, some states have been taking matters into their own hands. Last fall, a new law in Maine began allowing residents to mail order prescription medicines from licensed pharmacies in Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Mainers had long been traveling over the border to get cheaper medicines, said Troy D. Jackson, a state senator who sponsored the bill.

Source: The Economic Times- Business- High cost of drugs: US looks to provide relief for patients