More proposed market interventions to control drug costs

Joanna Shepherd —  2 May 2016

Last week, the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing (CSRxP)—whose membership includes health insurance companies and other health payors, health providers, and consumers—proposed various reforms aimed at addressing the high costs of prescription drugs. CSRxP declares that their proposals will improve the functioning of the pharmaceutical market by increasing pricing transparency, promoting competition, and enhancing value. Although there are some good ideas in their list of proposals, others will negatively affect the pharmaceutical market, and ultimately, consumers.

The first set of proposals is aimed at increasing transparency in drug pricing.  I’ve previously commented on the likely negative effects of transparency reforms: they impose extensive legal and regulatory costs on businesses and risk harming competition if competitively-sensitive information gets into the wrong hands. CSRxP proposes that manufacturers disclose the price they intend to charge for a drug as part of the FDA approval process and, after approval, report price changes to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Requiring manufacturers to report expected pricing as a condition of FDA approval suggests that the FDA’s role in assessing the risks and efficacy of drugs will merge with a central planner’s job of determining how products should be priced in the market. Will a drug not be approved if the price is too high? Shouldn’t consumers and payors, not a government agency, determine the market demand for a drug? And what will HHS do with the price change information—just condemn the “blameworthy” manufacturers or institute some sort of price control with its ensuing harms?

The second set of proposals purports to promote competition in the market for drugs. Many of these proposals are good ideas, and will help bring more and cheaper drugs to the market.  However, policy makers should tread carefully with other proposals, such as a call to prohibit product-hopping, because an overeager adoption or imprecise application of these reforms could curb pharmaceutical innovation and worsen patient health outcomes.  Lawmakers must ensure that adopted reforms balance incentives to innovate with the fostering of competition and lower prices.

The third set of proposals target the so-called “value” of drugs. Here, CSRxP proposes that manufacturers perform comparison studies to demonstrate that their drug is superior to existing drugs. While, in theory, knowing the relative effectiveness of drugs sounds great, there are two critical problems with this approach. First, are we really going to require more testing by drug manufacturers? It is estimated that testing and development costs already reach an average of $2.6 billion for each new drug brought to market; this is one of the explanations for the already high price of drugs. Why would we want to add more expensive testing? Also, I’m skeptical that comparison studies can offer the necessary insight into what drug works best for an individual patient. Drugs that perform extremely well for a small group of people may appear to have only average effectiveness in aggregate studies. And we certainly don’t want the expense of separate comparison studies on countless small groups of patients.

CSRxP also proposes that the government adopt value-based purchasing (VBP) arrangements that link payment for medications to patient outcomes and cost-effectiveness rather than just the quantity of treatments. Although CSRxP doesn’t detail the specific form of VBP they prefer, some of the possibilities could produce harmful consequences. Namely, VBP arrangements that set a standard payment rate for a group of similar drug products, such as reference pricing, will effectively act like a price control because the only way certain drugs will be available is if drug companies agree to offer them at that set rate. Price controls—whether direct or indirect—are a bad idea for prescription drugs for several reasons. Evidence shows that price controls lead to higher initial launch prices for drugs, increased drug prices for consumers with private insurance coverage, drug shortages in certain markets, and reduced incentives for innovation.

In sum, while CSRxP has some good ideas in their list, many of the proposals would ultimately harm the very patients the proposals are designed to benefit. Policymakers should steer clear of any reform that could act as a direct or indirect price control, increase the already high costs of developing drugs, or reduce incentives for innovation.

Joanna Shepherd

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Professor of Law; Emory University School of Law