NEW YORK — With the prices for some common generic medicines soaring over the past 18 months, state and federal lawmakers are trying to find relief for patients struggling to pay.
On Thursday, a Senate panel convened to investigate price increases for generic drugs. Separately, senators Amy Klobuchar and John McCain will revive stalled legislation to allow some prescription imports from Canada. And Maine is testing out a hotly contested new law that allows its residents to buy drugs from overseas, flouting US policy.
Half of generic medicines went up in price between last summer and this summer; about 10 percent more than doubled in cost in that time, with some common medicines rising by over 500 percent, new data released in connection with a congressional hearing found. These include thyroid replacement hormone, the antibiotic doxycycline, the heart pill digoxin, and the asthma pill albuterol.
“Generics have played an important role in making medicine affordable for millions of people,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent and chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. He held this week’s hearing with Representative Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat. “I worry that we’re seeing the end of that now,” Sanders said. “This should be highlighted and remedied.”
Because the United States does not regulate drug pricing or negotiate prices nationally, as other countries do, generic medicines have long been a safety valve for American patients, allowing them to obtain needed medicines at lower costs. Brand name medicines are granted patent protection for a number of years after they enter the market. Historically, after the patent expires, generic copies have entered the fray, bringing prices down, often sharply.
But that pattern is changing, researchers and policy makers say. The cost of many generic medications has increased so much during the past year that prices for many common generics in the United States have surpassed those of their brand name equivalents in other developed countries, a new analysis by the website Pharmacychecker, which guides patients in the mail-order purchase of medications, has found.
Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said the time was right for legislation because drug costs have risen, but salaries have not.
“The economy has stabilized but it’s really hard for the middle class to get by, and this is a glaring example of where we are so out of line with other countries,” she said. “One solution is to let some competition in from over the border.”
There are many reasons that generic prices may fluctuate. The price of a key ingredient may increase markedly, or competition may decrease as manufacturers leave a market, leading to price rises.
With the federal government slow to come to the table on the issue, some states have been taking matters into their own hands.
Last fall, a new law in Maine began allowing residents to mail-order prescription medicines from licensed pharmacies in Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.
Mainers had long been traveling over the border to get cheaper medicines, said Troy D. Jackson, a state senator who sponsored the bill.
While other states have considered such legislation, they are watching how legal challenges play out in court. State pharmacists have challenged the law, saying it exposes them to unfair competition.