Michigan Association of Health Plans

It’s Not Just Insulin: Lawmakers Focus on Price of One Drug, While Others Rise Too

Michael Costanzo, a Colorado farmer diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2016, has a well-honed ritual: Every six months, he takes an IV infusion of a medicine, Rituxan, to manage his disease, which has no cure. Then he figures out how to manage the bill, which costs thousands of dollars.

For a time, the routine held steady: The price billed to his health insurance for one infusion would cost $6,201 to $6,841. Costanzo’s health insurance covered most of it, and he paid the rest out-of-pocket.

But last fall the cost for the same 20-year-old drug and dosage jumped to $10,320, even though he was covered by the same insurance.

“Why does it have to increase in price all of a sudden?” wondered Costanzo, who lives in a small town about 50 miles north of Denver.

“I think greed is a huge problem,” he said.

As drug prices spiral upward, politicians in Washington, D.C., and in state governments across the country have sought to address the problem in limited ways, focusing mostly on one drug: insulin, a drug more than 7 million Americans rely on to manage diabetes and whose price tag more than doubled from 2012 to 2017.

With comprehensive drug price legislation stalled in Washington during the COVID-19 state of emergency, seven states in the midst of the pandemic enacted insulin payment caps of less than $100 per month, bringing the total to eight; five more have proposed legislation. In March, President Donald Trump’s health officials announced a Medicare test project limiting seniors’ monthly out-of-pocket costs to $35. In July, he signed four executive actions targeting insulin and a handful of other medications, boasting, “It’s going to have an incredible impact.”

Insulin took center stage last year, after moving demonstrations by mothers who caravanned to Canada to buy lifesaving medicine for their children at a tenth of the U.S. price; they swarmed the halls of Congress.

The measures that have resulted so far have not solved a far more widespread problem: escalating drug prices across the board — a problem that voters, left and right, say Congress must fix.

Underlying the problem is that lawmakers spent much of last year at loggerheads about whether the federal government should have the power to set prices or limit price increases. Prospects of comprehensive legislation already in the works slipped away this spring as Congress turned its focus to the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 Americans and tanked the country’s economy.

So state lawmakers played whack-a-mole, targeting the drug with the most notoriety, and tackled insulin’s cost to patients. But patients like Costanzo — among the millions who rely on other vital drugs — struggle evermore to afford unchecked price increases for everything from HIV/AIDS and depression to asthma, autoimmune disorders and Type 2 diabetes.

A 2019 survey from the Scripps Research Translational Institute published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open found that the costs of 17 top-selling brand-name drugs more than doubled from 2012 to 2017. Many of the drugs that made the list are household names: Lipitor and Zetia for high cholesterol, Advair and Symbicort for asthma, Lyrica for pain and Chantix for smoking cessation.

“The general public doesn’t realize this is happening with all sorts of drugs,” Costanzo said. “We’re all suffering from increased prices.”

This article was originally featured in Kaiser Health News, read more here.