Have high-priced prescription drugs jumped the shark?

Call it wishful thinking — but check out this data from IMS Health, which shows that the use of prescription drugs is on pace to decline in the United States in 2008 after a decade of growth:

The New York Times blames the trend on high drug prices combined with a bad economy. It reports that the implications are not good —

If enough people try to save money by forgoing drugs, controllable conditions could escalate into major medical problems. That could eventually raise the nation’s total health care bill and lower the nation’s standard of living.

Martin Schwarzenberger, a 56-year-old accounting manager for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, is stretching out his prescriptions. Mr. Schwarzenberger, who has Type 1 diabetes, is not cutting his insulin, but has started scrimping on a variety of other medications he takes, including Lipitor.

“Don’t tell my wife, but if I have 30 days’ worth of pills, I’ll usually stretch those out to 35 or 40 days,” he said. “You’re trying to keep a house over your head and use your money to pay all your bills.”

I know enough about cholesterol-reducing drugs to know that you have to take them every day. You lose some of the benefit if you don’t — and who knows, maybe that’s the difference in whether this man has an early heart attack or not. God forbid.

But there is something hopeful in this story. After a decade of spending billions of dollars on advertising to encourage drug sales, the pharmaceutical companies are not selling more drugs — but fewer.

From what I remember from my economics classes, if you reach the point where advertising dollars aren’t increasing demand for your product, you have to try something else. And from a pure supply-and-demand standpoint, the easiest thing to try is to lower your prices. Lower them enough, and the number of prescription drugs filled will start going up again.

That’s just common sense, isn’t it?

Of course, when it comes to fixing the pharmaceutical industry, common sense is the ultimate form of wishful thinking.

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