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Physician Group Calls On Government To Rein In Drug Prices

"You won't believe the price of this one!"
Gary Waters
Getty Images/Ikon Images
"You won't believe the price of this one!"

It's not just patients who are getting tired of ever rising drug prices. Doctors are joining the chorus of frustration.

The latest voice? The American College of Physicians, whose membership includes 143,000 internal medicine doctors. It published a position paper Monday calling for the government and industry to take steps to rein in spiraling costs.

"This is consistent with our mission to put the patient first," Dr. Wayne Riley, ACP president, tell Shots. We've heard from our patients, and our patients are frustrated with dealing with this."

The article, being published Tuesday in Annals of Internal Medicine, says that the U.S. is the only country in the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes most advanced economies, that doesn't have any government regulation of drug prices.

The ACP paper offered seven recommendations that would change that, and that the physician group says will help control U.S. drug prices. The recommendations include allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with drugmakers and re-importing drugs from countries like Canada, where they're often sold at a lower cost.

The ACP also wants drugmakers to disclose the actual research and production costs of developing and manufacturing each drug, and to disclose the prices paid for drugs — including discounts and rebates — that take advantage of basic research funded by the government, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We particularly feel strongly about those drugs that came to market and made it through the R&D process with support of the NIH grants or VA grants, [that they] should be particularly compliant with more transparency," Riley says.

People in the pharmaceutical industry dispute that more information about prices will help. "Making it more transparent will make it more clear, but it will have a negative effect on competition," says Ed Schoonveld, head of the market access and pricing division of ZS Associates, which consults with pharmaceutical companies on pricing.

He says it's important for doctors to join the discussion on pricing because insurers are moving to restrict access to some drugs to save money, and that may not be best for patients. However, the solutions the ACP is advocating, such as re-importation, may not make a difference, he says.

The Food and Drug Administration has consistently opposed drug importation on safety grounds. In response to a rise in online pharmacy sales to Americans, drugmakers restricted supplies of medicines going to drug distributors in Canada.

About 60 percent of U.S. adults take prescription medications, according to a study from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. While retail prices for brand-name drugs have soared in recent years, the actual prices paid by health plans remain a mystery because they are determined through private negotiations that involve discounts and rebates.

Still, a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that patient copays are rising faster than incomes.

The American College of Physicians' Riley says the group plans to bring its messages about drug prices to Washington in May, when its members will call on legislators in Congress to press for action.

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Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak is a health policy correspondent on NPR's Science Desk.