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The drug pricing debate is stuck in the past

Illustration of falling pills and coins
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There’s a scientific and economic revolution happening in medicine, and the political debate over drug prices isn’t keeping up. Not only are policymakers struggling to agree on solutions, they’re mostly talking about yesterday’s problems.

Why it matters: Medical innovation is already hurtling toward a new era of highly specialized drugs — some are even tailor-made for each individual patient. They may be more effective than anything we’ve seen before, and also more expensive. But the drug-pricing debate is more focused on decades-old parts of the system.

The big picture: "We haven’t really contemplated how we're going to absorb some of these things,” Food and Drug Administration Scott Gottlieb said. "These are good problems to have…but they are policy challenges.”

Where it stands: Congress is mainly squabbling over proposals to reduce prices by boosting competition — by making it easier to start developing generics, or by changing patent protections that help pharmaceutical companies keep their rivals at bay.

Yes, but: Those regulatory tools were designed for a world in which pharmaceutical companies develop relatively simple drugs and try to market them to a big group of people. But science is rapidly moving away from that world.

  • Gene therapy, for example, is the new wave in cancer treatment. It helps patients’ own immune systems fight off cancer — which means each dose is custom-made for each patient. It’s a highly promising approach, but treatment can come with a price tag north of $1 million once all is said and done.
  • The old dichotomy of a brand-name pill followed by a generic version of that pill doesn’t really hold up for custom-made drugs.
  • So tools that try to promote competition simply may not work as well. “I don’t think they’re solutions for gene therapies because I think you’re ultimately going to have to figure out ways to capitalize those costs," Gottlieb said.

Even without being custom-made, many new drugs are still trying to treat smaller groups of patients — like people with the same specific genetic mutation.

  • “Generic entry might not prove to be as successful for addressing this problem as it has historically been, and I think it’s because we fundamentally have shifted into these other types of products where competition is just more challenging,” Vanderbilt's Stacie Dusetzina said.

Most of these new drugs belong to a class known as biologics. They’re more complex than the drugs we’re used to, and therefore have the potential to be more precise in the way they interact with your body.

  • "The way drugs are produced and made now is quite different from the way they were produced and made in the early ‘80s, and that’s both because…you have a lot of these drugs being made for small populations, and for biologics the science is so much more complicated," said Rachel Sachs, a professor at Washington University.
  • Biologics don’t have traditional generic versions; the equivalent are products known as “biosimilars.”
  • The Affordable Care Act created a pathway for the FDA to approve biosimilars, but that market has been slow to take off, and at least in the early going, biosimilars often don’t offer the same steep discounts as traditional generics.

Promoting competition isn’t the only idea in the world, but more muscular price controls are much more controversial.

  • Most of these new, complex drugs are administered at a doctor’s office, not picked up from a pharmacy. The Trump administration has proposed tying Medicare’s payments for that class of drugs to the lower prices that other countries pay, and Democrats support direct Medicare price negotiations.

The bottom line: “One version of ten years from now will have very limited competition in certain types of markets, either because the market has eroded it to be that way or because the drugs that are coming out will by definition have limited competition," said Rena Conti, a professor at Boston University.

Go deeper: The cancer drug pricing firestorm