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kathleen stoll

Kathleen Stoll

On the first day of 2022, pharmaceutical companies increased prices on 460 medications, with most prices up 5% to 6% on average, according to the research firm 46brooklyn.

I guess that journalists reporting on prescription drug price increases only need to paste in the latest increase to the same headline year after year. This year’s price increases were comparable to last year’s. The number of drugs that had January price increases by year: 629 (2021); 385 (2020); 359 (2019); 538 (2018); and 494 (2017).

Sadly, this increase – because it is under 10% — is reported as a sign of moderation by the pharmaceutical industry. And by the way, while many drug prices are announced on Jan. 1, many others will be announced later in January, so more “good news” coming.

Four of the top 10 prescription drugs in the United States have increased in price by more than 100% since 2011. Brand name drug prices are increasing more than twice as fast as inflation.

In West Virginia, the average annual cost of prescription drug treatment rose 26.3% from 2015 to 2019. Median person-level income only increased 10.4%.

Again, prescription drug prices are rising faster than inflation – more than twice as fast.

The result is that 24% of West Virginia adults under age 65 do not take medications as prescribed due to high costs. Certain groups are more likely to report difficulty affording medication, including those who report being in fair or poor health (49%), those who take four or more prescription drugs (35%), and those with incomes less than $40,000 annually (35%).

So isn’t it time for some new headlines?

The headlines won’t change unless Congress passes prescription drug price legislation. And guess what? The Build Back Better legislative package being debated in the Senate includes provisions to help hold down prescription drug price increases.

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That is why I am so glad to read headlines that report Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is back at the Build Back Better negotiation table with his fellow Democrats.

Key prescription drug provisions in the Build Back Better Act include:

  • Beginning in 2023, drug manufacturers will effectively be barred from increasing prices for drugs faster than general inflation for either Medicare or private insurance.
  • Beginning in 2024, out-of-pocket costs in Medicare Part D will be capped for the first time, to $2,000. Insulin co-pays are capped at $35 per month.
  • Beginning in 2025, Medicare will, for the first time, have the power to negotiate the price of prescription drugs.

I don’t know a West Virginian who doesn’t have an unaffordable prescription drug story.

Here’s mine. About two years ago I had cataract surgery. Unfortunately, my retinas are fragile. A couple weeks after my surgery, my retinas started detaching. I ended up having emergency retinal surgery and then three subsequent rounds of retinal laser tacking. I don’t wish this on anyone, but I am grateful my vision was saved.

After the surgery, my existing dry cornea problems grew worse in reaction to the trauma. Both my retina specialist and my cornea specialist recommended one of two prescription eye-drops: Restasis or Xiidra.

These eye-drops are not the same as the many over-the-counter eye-drops that lubricate eyes. These prescription eye-drops address the underlying issues of tear production. Across-the-counter eye drops only temporarily add moisture to the surface of the eye.

Both Restasis and Xiidra cost over $500 for a month’s supply. My health insurance did not cover either drug. So, like so many West Virginians living on a tight family budget, I can’t afford the drugs my doctors prescribed. I cope with my eye problems with over-the-counter, cheaper eye-drops. As a result, I must take breaks literally all day long to put in eye-drops. Hopefully my dry eye issues will improve over time.

And I hope Manchin will see his way to vote yes to put a check on prescription drug price increases.

Kathleen Stoll serves as the Policy Director for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care (wvahc.org) and operates a policy and economic consulting business, Kat Consulting.

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