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Price hikes on several top-selling drugs were a lot smaller this year

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By Rebecca Robbins STAT 

Average annual price increases have declined at least four years in a row for 20 of America’s top-selling brand-name prescription drugs, according to a STAT analysis of data from Truven Health Analytics, an IBM Watson business.

The data suggest that public and political outrage over the high cost of vital medicines may be swaying corporate strategies. Price growth was especially low in 2017 — perhaps due, in part, to peer pressure, as several top pharma companies have made public pledges to limit price hikes.

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Prices for the drugs STAT analyzed, which treat conditions including arthritis, diabetes, HIV, and asthma, have jumped by average of 6.9 percent over the past year. By comparison, the price hikes for these same drugs averaged:

ª 7.6 percent in 2016

ª 10.4 percent in 2015

ª13.6 percent in 2014

ª15.2 percent in 2013

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STAT’s analysis looked at the top 20 medicines in the United States by top-line invoice spending, as identified in a recent report from IQVIA, the research and consulting firm previously known as QuintilesIMS. IQVIA’s ranking is one way to count some of the country’s most popular brand-name drugs.

The 20 drugs on the list include familiar names like the hepatitis C treatment Harvoni and the cholesterol medicine Crestor.

Among the drugs STAT looked at, the highest price hike this year was for Lyrica, Pfizer’s treatment for nerve pain and fibromyalgia. Pfizer raised the price on Lyrica in January and June, meaning that the drug price now is 19.8 percent higher than it was at the end of 2016.

On the other end of the scale, Harvoni’s price didn’t change during 2017; in fact, Gilead hasn’t increased it since the drug’s 2014 launch.

One key fact to keep in mind: Even with relatively small price hikes, many of these drugs remain very expensive. Seven of them had an average cost per patient for the full year of 2017 ranging between $59,000 and $92,000, according to an estimate from EvaluatePharma.

And Truven’s data show that the prices of these drugs have increased by an average of 213 percent since their launch, well outpacing inflation.

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Still, STAT’s findings highlight a fact sometimes overlooked in the debate over high drug costs: Many of the prescriptions most likely to be in your medicine cabinet have seen relatively modest price increases. The price hikes that draw the headlines, by contrast, are often for less widely used drugs, like the old glaucoma medicine that shot up in price after it was approved to treat a rare form of paralysis.

Then there’s perhaps the most infamous price hike of all: The time the former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli increased by more than 5,000 percent the price of a drug used to fight a very rare parasitic infection.

Public outrage over such cases has spurred several pharma giants — AbbVie, Allergan, Takeda, and Novo Nordisk — to pledge in recent months to keep their price increases in the single digits. Meanwhile, Sanofi and the biotech company Alnylam (which doesn’t yet have a drug on the market) have vowed to keep their price increases in line with inflation.

Other drug makers have made a “what’s the point?” argument to justify their decision not to take a pricing pledge, such as Regeneron (which said it doesn’t increase prices), Johnson & Johnson (which said it’s already limiting price increases to single digits), and Pfizer (which said it has always priced responsibly).

Just one of the drugs STAT analyzed, Humira — AbbVie’s best-selling treatment for arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases — is subject to such a pricing pledge.

A few caveats: Truven’s data for 2017 only reflect prices as of December 18; it’s possible that the makers of these drugs could hike them more before the year’s end. Evaluate’s data on costs per patient for all of 2017 assumes perfect compliance to treatment guidelines, which, of course, doesn’t happen in real life.

And the data from Truven, Evaluate, and IQVIA reflect the list prices of drugs — meaning they don’t take into the discounts and rebates that often lower the medicine’s actual cost.


Rebecca Robbins can be reached at rebecca.robbins@statnews.com
Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaDRobbins
Follow Stat on Twitter: @statnews.