Jan 22, 2019 - Health

Drug makers still raising prices, but seeking fewer hikes

Data: 46brooklyn Research; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: 46brooklyn Research; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The number of price increases on brand-name drugs fell by about half from 2015 through 2018, according to data provided to Axios and compiled by 46brooklyn Research, a nonprofit firm that tracks drug prices.

Yes, but: Several companies still raised list prices frequently and at rates well above inflation, and many medications that saw higher prices had already lost patent protection or are nearing a patent expiration.

Details: 46brooklyn previously studied generic pricing trends using federal data, and has since expanded to analyze federal data on brand-name drugs. A few caveats exist with its latest dataset:

  • The firm's analysis tracked list prices, and therefore doesn't include rebates and discounts that are paid to various middlemen. The industry hides those net prices as trade secrets.
  • Many high-cost drugs, like some cancer drugs and outpatient medicines, were not included in the analysis.

By the numbers: There are records of more than 10,000 drug price increases from 2015 through January 2019. But the pace of those price increases dropped once the calendar flipped to 2017.

  • No drug company raised prices more frequently than Pfizer. The company accrued more than 2,300 price hikes over the past 4 years and was recently caught in Trump's Twitter crosshairs before ultimately deciding to go back to the status quo.
  • Pfizer also has a lot of drugs on the market. After adjusting for the number of Pfizer's products, the company had about 23 price hikes per drug over the same time span, according to our own analysis of 46brooklyn's data. Pfizer responded by referring to a November statement that said prices for 2019 were unchanged for 90% of its drugs.
  • Other large drug makers that own a lot of medications — such as Allergan, Novartis and Johnson & Johnson — similarly raised prices hundreds of times since 2015.
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb had the most price hikes per drug (81.5), as the company raised prices multiple times on every dosage of two older drugs that have generic equivalents: Coumadin and Sustiva.
  • A BMS spokesperson said the company is committed "to fair pricing practices" and that net prices have not increased by more than 5% in any of the past five years. BMS also does "not plan to take increases on our mature medicines" in 2019.
  • Two other notable companies with high rates of per-drug price increases: AbbVie (32.6) and Purdue Pharma (28). AbbVie consistently raised the price of Humira, the world's top-selling drug. Purdue increased prices of a few drugs, including OxyContin, the controversial painkiller that has been tied closely to the opioid crisis.

The big picture: Although drug companies have slowed the number of price increases on their medicines due to the political climate, the industry at large is still raising prices with regularity, and that inevitably affects patients who have high deductibles and coinsurance rates.

  • We still don't know the net price companies are paid for their drugs, but their profits haven't taken a hit.

Go deeper: Explore the data.

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