TEXAS (CBS11 I-TEAM) – Prescription drug costs are going up at a pace that’s leaving many patients wondering how much longer can they afford their life-saving medication.
The CBS 11 I-Team found dozens of prescription drugs have nearly doubled in price in the past five years.
Some like the asthma drug, albuterol sulfate, and the anti-depressant medication, clomipramine, have increased by nearly 3,000 percent since 2012.
These types of dramatic and unpredictable price hikes have patients all across Texas concerned.
- Veronica Crowe (Dallas) – Epilepsy Patient
Veronica Crowe has taken six different medications for her epilepsy, but her seizures finally went away when her doctor prescribed Vimpat.
Without the pill, Crowe said she would have never made it through graduate school or had the confidence or freedom to travel.
“I would hate to see where I would be now without it because the others didn’t work,” she said. “But it’s definitely a lot of money.”
Crowe said her medication costs $5,000 for a 90-day supply. That’s $2,000 more than what it cost just five years ago.
The I-Team found other epilepsy drugs have gone up even more.
Using the National Average Drug Acquisition Cost database, the I-Team found the price of six popular epilepsy drugs jumped more than 90 percent in the past five years. (Ativan up 569 percent, Zonegran up 213 percent, Felbatol up 108 percent, Trileptal up 96 percent, Dilantin up 94 eprcent, Zarontin up 92 percent)
“This is definitely something that I worry about every day,” said Crowe.
And she’s not the only one.
- Violet Southall (Azle) – Cancer Survivor
Violet Southall receives financial assistance from a foundation to help pay for her cancer drug. The 80-year-old cancer survivor is quick to express her appreciation. She said without the help there’s no way she could afford the $14,000 a month price tag.
“There would be no way on earth even if we sold the house,” Southall said.
Without her medication, Southall knows she likely wouldn’t be alive today.
“I probably wouldn’t be sitting here without my medication,” she said.
Southall’s cancer drug, Afinitor, has gone up nearly $5,000 for a month supply since 2012.
Every time the price goes up, Southall said she worries the number of places where patients can go for help will go down.
Every year Southall has to reapply to the foundation for financial help. She said her doctors warn her many of those who apply are not selected.
“The foundations run out of money very quickly,” she said.
Critics argue charitable foundations, many largely funded by drug makers, often simply mask the problem of escalating drug prices.
Dr. Ray Page, president and director of research at The Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, said the emotional stress on a patient of not knowing whether they can pay for their medication can lead to risky and even deadly decisions.
“We have patients that run into delays on getting lifesaving therapies, and then there are some people that make decisions to forgo treatment all together because they are concerned about the burden of the cost they may leave on their family.”
- Morgan Harris (Blossom) – Diabetic
Drug companies often point to the cost of research and development as a major reason for the high expense of medication.
However, that doesn’t explain why 16-year-old Morgan Harris’ life saving insulin has seen a dramatic increase in price in recent years.
Harris has type one diabetes so whether she’s at high school cheerleading practice or out raising rabbits at her home in Blossom, Texas, her insulin goes wherever she goes.
“I have to have it everywhere I go because I never know when I’m going to eat something or have to check my sugar,” explained the 16-year-old.
Insulin is not new or cutting edge. The FDA first approved its use 35 years ago, but the I-Team found the big three insulin makers have all nearly doubled their price since 2012. (Humalog up 92 percent, Novolog up 113 percent, Lantus up 101 percent)
Harris’ two insulins cost $1,000 a month, and even with insurance her family is still on the hook for the full price until they reach their $6,000 deductible.
“If we made a whole lot of money it wouldn’t matter, but we’re middle class people. It’s hard to afford this stuff,” said Harris’ mother, Jenifer Ebbs. “What do you do? I’m at a lost.”
Ebbs, like almost any parent, said she would do anything to keep her daughter healthy and she believes some drug companies take advantage of that.
“That’s where they get you,” she explained. “They know parents are going to do whatever it takes to get the medicine for their children to survive, so they are going to mark it up and make whatever they can off of it.”
- Generic Drugs Not Immune To Dramatic Price Hikes
Along with brand name drugs, the I-Team found major price hikes with several generic drugs.
Despite being developed decades ago, many generic drugs over the past five years have doubled and even tripled in price.
Some have gone up even more than that in the last five years.
Erythromycin 2 percent, is a prescribed gel for severe acne. From 2012 to 2017, its listed price increased by 741 percent.
The list price of albuterol sulfate, a generic asthma drug, has gone up 2,626 percent.
Clomipramine, used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, has jumped in price by 3,587 percent.
Drug makers blame insurance companies for not passing along discounts.
The CBS 11 I-Team reached out to the largest drug makers in the U.S.
A spokesperson for PhRMA, a trade group that represents many of the large pharmaceutical companies, told the I-Team drug makers are not solely responsible for what patients pay out-of-pocket for their medications. While pharmaceutical companies set the list price of medicines, PhRMA said it is the insurer who is responsible for what a patient pays out-of-pocket.
Many pharmaceutical companies said they’ve tried to lower the price burden of drugs by giving insurance companies rebates, but they said the insurance companies often don’t pass along the discounts to the patients.
In an email to the I-Team a spokesperson for PhRMA wrote: “Americans are being asked by their insurers to pay cost sharing based on undiscounted list prices, even though insurers may be receiving significant rebates. … Insurance companies should share at least some of the discounts they receive with patients filling prescriptions at the pharmacy.”
Drug makers also argue research and development of new drugs is expensive.
Novo Nordisk, the maker of the insulin NovoLog, acknowledged the struggle many Americans face with trying to pay for their medicines, especially people with diabetes.
In a written statement a NovoNordisk spokesperson wrote, “As a company focused on improving the lives of people with diabetes, this is not acceptable.”
The pharmaceutical company stated it is working to find “sustainable solutions” including simplifying the pricing system, creating more pricing predictability, and finding ways to reduce the out-of-pocket expense for patients through patient assistance programs and lower-priced options.
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the maker of the popular drugs Advair, Avodart and Flovent, told the I-Team in a written statement it “recognizes that there is frustration around the price of pharmaceuticals.”
In a written statement a GSK spokesperson wrote, “A holistic approach that starts with greater collaboration among everyone in the system is necessary to reimagine how we finance and deliver healthcare today.”
Can the federal government do something about soaring drug prices?
Some lawmakers in Washington want to change federal law to allow the federal government to negotiate the price of prescription drugs directly with the drug companies. Currently, the government cannot negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies on the price Medicare pays for medications. Medicare is the single largest buyer of pharmaceutical drugs in the U.S. What Medicare pays for a drug often becomes the benchmark price in the U.S.
Patients advocates say they believe by allowing the government to negotiate with drug companies directly, it would lower drug prices for all of us.
How much has your prescription gone up?
Click on a medication here to see how much the average retail price has gone up since 2012. (Source: National Average Drug Acquisition Cost)