The prices of four drugs that treat such serious illnesses as cancer, hepatitis C, short bowel syndrome and myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disorder that causes muscle weakness, each top $1,000 a day, according to a new AARP Rx Price Watch report on popular specialty drugs.
The 10 highest priced drugs AARP included in its report range from Soliris, which is priced at $1,384 a day, to Symdeko, priced at $803 a day. Soliris is a monoclonal antibody drug used to treat a number of ailments, including myasthenia gravis. Symdeko treats cystic fibrosis.
Retail prices for 180 widely used specialty prescription drugs increased by an average of 4.8 percent in 2020, according to the AARP report. The general inflation rate was 1.3 percent last year. Specialty drugs are used to treat complex, chronic conditions and are among the most expensive medicines on the market. The report also found that the average annual cost for one specialty medication used on a chronic basis was $84,442 in 2020, nearly three times the median income for Medicare beneficiaries ($29,650) and more than 4.5 times the average Social Security retirement benefit ($18,530).
“If recent specialty drug price trends continue unabated, an increasing number of vulnerable Americans will be unable to afford necessary specialty medications,” the report says. “Such developments will lead to poorer health outcomes and higher health care costs in the future.”
AARP fighting for lower Rx prices
The specialty drug report is the latest in a series of AARP studies that have tracked the fluctuations in prescription drug prices since 2004. The findings are being released as AARP accelerates its Fair Rx Prices Now campaign, which is calling on Congress to lower prescription drug prices.
The three-pronged campaign advocates giving Medicare the ability to negotiate prices with drugmakers, capping out-of-pocket costs for Medicare Part D beneficiaries and penalizing manufacturers that increase prices more than the rate of inflation. If retail price changes were limited to the general inflation rate, the report found, the average annual cost for the specialty medications AARP studied would be just under $40,000 a year instead of more than $84,000.
“The prices on these life-saving medications are increasing just as specialty drugs are being used more; there are more people with conditions that now can be treated with these drugs,” says Leigh Purvis, AARP director of health services research and co-author of the Price Watch reports.
Even for people who don't use these specialty drugs, Purvis says, “your health care premiums are going towards paying for these products, so you should care about the prices that these drug companies are setting.”
Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.