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How to save $80 billion a year on prescription drugs

ilustration of a pill made of money
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Medicare could have saved almost $80 billion, just in 2018, by matching the U.K.'s prices for prescription drugs that don't have any competition, according to a new study released in Health Affairs yesterday.

Why it matters: Medicare's drug benefit was designed to keep prices in check through competition. But competition doesn't always exist, and the U.S. doesn't have many options to keep prices down in those cases.

  • Unlike the other three countries examined in the study, the U.S. doesn't regulate drug prices.

Details: This study focuses on a group of single-source brand-name drugs in Medicare Part D that have been on the market for at least 3 years. Researchers compared U.S. prices for those drugs to prices in the U.K., Japan and Ontario.

  • On average, after accounting for rebates, Medicare paid 3.6 times more than the U.K., 3.2 times more than Japan, and 4.1 times more than Ontario.
  • The longer a drug was on the U.S. market, the larger that gap grew.
  • If Medicare Part D had adopted the average price from those countries, it would have saved an estimated $72.9 billion on sole-source drugs in 2018 alone.

Between the lines: The Trump administration wants to rely on international prices for Medicare Part B, which covers drugs administered in a doctor's office. But this study shows that there are also a lot of savings to be had in Medicare Part D, which covers drugs you pick up at a pharmacy.

The other side: "An international reference pricing system could result in American seniors losing access to their choice of medicine, and waiting years longer for new breakthrough treatments," the trade group PhRMA said in a statement.

The bottom line: The political interest in cutting drug prices is real, but we're still a very long way from President Trump's stated goal of matching other countries' prices.

Go deeper: The drug pricing maze