THURSDAY, Oct. 27, 2016 -- Americans are dismayed by sharp hikes in pharmaceutical prices, with more and more declaring their support for price caps on prescription drugs, according to the latest HealthDay/Harris Poll.
Nine out of 10 adults blame pharmaceutical companies either "some" or "a lot" for the high cost of health care, and two-thirds blame them "a lot," the poll revealed.
As a result, the proportion of Americans who support price controls or caps on drugs and medical devices has now increased to 81 percent. That's a steady rise from the 64 percent and 73 percent seen in similar Harris Poll surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Support for allowing Medicare to "negotiate prices on pharmaceuticals for all insurers" has also jumped from 66 percent in a 2015 poll to 74 percent in the latest poll.
"The very large majorities of people who support tough government measures to rein in drug prices -- including government price controls and drug importation -- have become even larger," said Humphrey Taylor, chairman emeritus of The Harris Poll.
Support for price caps on medicines seems high across the political spectrum, with 85 percent of Democrats in favor, as well as 77 percent of Republicans.
The poll was conducted online Oct. 12-14 and involved more than 2,100 Americans aged 18 and over.
Taylor believes that a steady drumbeat of news reports involving headline-grabbing price hikes may be fueling a shift in public opinion against pharmaceutical companies.
For example, Mylan, the manufacturer of the emergency allergy rescue drug EpiPen, faced withering public criticism after the list price of a two-pack leaped from a little more than $100 in 2007 to in excess of $600 today. In response, the company has pledged to make available a generic version with a list price of $300 for a two-pack.
And earlier this year, entrepreneur Martin Shkreli continued to anger Americans by refusing to testify before a Congressional committee regarding Daraprim, the lifesaving parasitic infection drug made by his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals. Shkreli became infamous after Turing increased the price of the decades-old generic drug by more than 5,000 percent, from $13.50 to $750 a pill.
"Recent reports of big drug price increases seem to have made the public even angrier with the pharmaceutical industry than they were before," Taylor noted.
Very large majorities of Americans appear to agree with oft-repeated criticisms of the drug industry:
- 90 percent agree that "raising the prices of life-saving medications is taking advantage of consumers."
- 90 percent agree that "pharmaceutical companies make too much money off of life-saving medications."
- 88 percent agree that "pharmaceutical industries have too much freedom to set prices for life-saving medications."
At the same time, few people appear to buy into two arguments often cited by those who oppose drug price caps and other government policies to contain drug prices.
For example, only 34 percent of Americans agree that "high prescription drug prices are necessary to keep research and development moving forward." And just 23 percent agree that "pharmaceutical companies should be free to charge whatever prices they want."
Taylor added that "most people do not buy the argument that high drug prices are needed in order to pay for research to develop new drugs."
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a trade association, did not respond to a HealthDay request for comment on the poll results.
Stuart Schweitzer is a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and an expert in health economics and pharmaceutical policy. He said he's "not surprised" by the poll results.
"The polls are not inconsistent with cocktail party conversations I have with a lot of people," said Schweitzer, who specializes in pharmaceutical drug policy.
But he also believes that the situation is more complex than is sometimes portrayed in the news.
For example, Schweitzer said, articles often report the list price of drugs, but fail to note that insurance companies usually negotiate a lower price and consumers pay out a much lower copay.
"They're no more relevant than the prices stuck on new cars at a dealership," Schweitzer said. "They're suggested prices, and no one pays them."
News articles also fail to note the long-term benefits -- and potential cost savings -- of an expensive new drug, he said.
For example, newer hepatitis C drugs such as Sovaldi and Harvoni have drawn attention because the first wave came with a price tag of $84,000 for the full treatment.
But Schweitzer said the alternative to not taking the medications is much pricier.
"We can wait until the [hepatitis C-linked liver] disease is much more serious and then have a liver transplant, which at UCLA costs $400,000," he said. "People gulp and they say, 'Well, gee, the $80,000 is certainly less than that.' "
Schweitzer believes that more competition, rather than price caps, is key to reining in high drug prices. He said that list prices for hepatitis C drugs have steadily decreased as each new medication has entered the market, with the fourth such drug having a list price of $50,000.
The public concurs with Schweitzer when it comes to competition, with 68 percent of Americans agreeing that "there isn't enough competition in the pharmaceutical industry."
"I would like the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to speed up the process or to relax the constraints a little bit in the case of a monopoly," Schweitzer said.
For more on drug pricing, visit the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
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