Health Policy

Matthew’s health care tidbits: Drug prices

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

For my health care tidbits this week, I am going to talk drug pricing. Anyone who gets basically any health policy newsletter has seen some of the cash PhRMA has splashed trying to make it seem as though the American public is terrified of drug price controls. But as Michael Millenson on a recent THCB Gang pointed out, when Kaiser Health News asked the question in a rational way, those PhRMA supported numbers don’t hold. 85% of Americans want the government to intervene to reduce drug prices.

Big pharma whines about innovation and how they need high prices to justify R&D spending but health care insiders know two things. First, for ever Big Pharma has spent about twice as much on sales and marketing as it’s spent on R&D. This was true when I first started in health care thirty years ago and it’s still true today. Second, the “R” done by big pharma is resulting in fewer breakthrough drugs per $$ spent now compared to past decades. Which means that they should be increasing that share spent on R&D and need to improve the “R” process. But that’s not happening.

Finally, pharma is very good at increasing prices of branded products and extending their patent protection. Lots of dirty games go on here. Look into it and you can expect a lot of discussion about insulin pricing or discover how Humira is still raking in $16bn a year in the US, despite the fact its original patent expired in 2018. With 85% of the American public in favor, you’d think then that a Democratic Congress would leap at the change to pass a bill that might save the taxpayer $50bn a year in drug costs. But of course that’s not going to happen. There is about $30bn a year in savings in the House version of Build Back Better that passed last week, but there’s little chance of much of that being in the Senate version given Joe Manchin’s daughter’s role running a drug company, and Krysten Sinema being a recent recipient of PhRMA’s largesse. And that’s assuming any version of #BBB gets through the Senate.

Instead hope something small happens to help desperate patients, and wonder how we ended up in a political system that apparently disregards what 85% of the public wants.

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