The kitchen counter in the home of the Hayes family is scattered with the inhalers, sprays and bottles of pills that have allowed Hannah, 13, and her sister, Abby, 10, to excel at dance and gymnastics despite a horrific pollen season that has set off asthma attacks, leaving the girls struggling to breathe.
Asthma — the most common chronic disease that affects Americans of all ages, about 40 million people — can usually be well controlled with drugs. But being able to afford prescription medications in the United States often requires top-notch insurance or plenty of disposable income, and time to hunt for deals and bargains.
The arsenal of medicines in the Hayeses’ kitchen helps explain why. Pulmicort, a steroid inhaler, generally retails for over $175 in the United States, while pharmacists in Britain buy the identical product for about $20 and dispense it free of charge to asthma patients. Albuterol, one of the oldest asthma medicines, typically costs $50 to $100 per inhaler in the United States, but it was less than $15 a decade ago, before it was repatented.
“The one that really blew my mind was the nasal spray,” said Robin Levi, Hannah and Abby’s mother, referring to her $80 co-payment for Rhinocort Aqua, a prescription drug that was selling for more than $250 a month in Oakland pharmacies last year but costs under $7 in Europe, where it is available over the counter.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the annual cost of asthma in the United States at more than $56 billion, including millions of potentially avoidable hospital visits and more than 3,300 deaths, many involving patients who skimped on medicines or did without.
“The thing is that asthma is so fixable,” said Dr. Elaine Davenport, who works in Oakland’s Breathmobile, a mobile asthma clinic whose patients often cannot afford high prescription costs. “All people need is medicine and education.”
With its high prescription prices, the United States spends far more per capita on medicines than other developed countries. Drugs account for 10 percent of the country’s $2.7 trillion annual health bill, even though the average American takes fewer prescription medicines than people in France or Canada, said Gerard Anderson, who studies medical pricing at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.
Americans also use more generic medications than patients in any other developed country. The growth of generics has led to cheap pharmacy specials — under $7 a month — for some treatments for high cholesterol and high blood pressure, as well as the popular sleeping pill Ambien.
But many generics are still expensive, even if insurers are paying the bulk of the bill. Generic Augmentin, one of the most common antibiotics, retails for $80 to $120 for a 10-day prescription ($400 for the brand-name version). Generic Concerta, a mainstay of treating attention deficit disorder, retails for $75 to $150 per month, even with pharmacy discount coupons. For some conditions, including asthma, there are few generics available.
While the United States is famous for break-the-bank cancer drugs, the high price of many commonly used medications contributes heavily to health care costs and certainly causes more widespread anguish, since many insurance policies offer only partial coverage for medicines.
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