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POPPING PILLS

Prices of the most common prescription drugs nearly doubled in less than a decade

a person collecting pills from a bottle into their hand
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
The cost of the most popular prescription drugs doubles in less than a decade.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The one issue most Americans can agree on is that the price of prescription drugs are out of control.

An analysis from researchers at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, found that 48 out of 49—or 97%—of the most commonly prescribed drugs increased in price between January 2012 and December 2017. These price hikes occurred at least once per year, and the median overall increase was 76%. The only drug that didn’t become more expensive was Harvoni, a hepatitis C drug introduced in 2014. Its price decreased roughly 1% annually after competitors were introduced, giving it a median list price of $30,900 per prescription by the end of 2017.

The study, which was published last week in the journal JAMA Network Open, tracked the prices of drugs with sales above of $500 million in the US or $1 billion globally in 2017. They team used insurance claims from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Axis dataset, which includes data from 35 million Americans with private insurance, and included only drugs that had price data—meaning the total cost covered by insurance and copays—for at least three years.

Based on past trends, it appears that popular prescription drug prices doubled in less than a decade. Here are the top five prescribed drugs in the US over the course of six years:

Synthroid
Hypothyroidism
Abbott Laboratories
16,535,816
Crestor
High cholesterol (statin)
AstraZeneca
11,877,873
Vyvanse
ADHD
Shire
8,500,693
Lantus
Insulin
Sanofi
8,130,408
Nexium
Acid reflux
AstraZeneca
6,931,790

The most commonly prescribed drug, Synthroid, treats hypothyroidism, which can be caused by an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or thyroid cancer, and has been consistently one of the most popularly prescribed drugs for years. This is likely because there has been an uptick in diagnosed thyroid cancer cases, and most people who take the drug respond positively to it.

Because of competition from generics, Synthroid costs tens of dollars instead of the hundreds many prescription drugs cost. However, from 2012 to 2017, the median cost of the most commonly prescribed dose increased from $20 to $35—an increase of 75%.

 

The next four most commonly prescribed drugs saw similar percent increases in costs, but started at higher prices. Two of these drugs treat heart disease, one treats ADHD, and one is a form of insulin.

The steep rise of the cost of Lantus, the insulin drug, mirrors a worrying trend that the life-saving medication is becoming too expensive for those with diabetes. Last month, the former head of Medicare and Medicaid recommended that the US should nationalize insulin production in order to limit the financial burden of the drug, which is sometimes so steep patients ration their supplies and risk death. However, drug companies aren’t likely to hand over production of these profitable drugs to the US government in the foreseeable future.

The costs reflected in these charts show only the price for the most common dosage; it’s not clear how often people who need these prescriptions need refills, and what total monthly out-of-pocket costs are for patients.

However, what is clear is that if past trends continue, prescription drug prices will increase even more in the coming years. In 2017, US residents spent $324 billion on prescriptions; the authors estimate that this figure will increase between 2% to 5% annually over the next five years. This is likely an under estimate, though, because the US population is also aging; the number of adults over 65, who take roughly a third of all prescription drugs, is slated to overtake the number of children under 18 by 2035.

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