UMN experts highlight decreasing access to essential medicines in the United States

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Drug prices are on the rise, and there’s no end in sight for the soaring costs, according to a recent perspective from the University of Minnesota.

The perspective is published in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers from the Medical School at the University of Minnesota see a new business model emerging in the drug industry: pharmaceutical companies are buying the rights to drugs in niche markets and raising the prices to increase profits, often for drugs produced by one manufacturer with few or no alternatives.

“In such a model, nothing is being put back into the healthcare system and patients requiring the medications are suffering,” said Jonathan Alpern, M.D., co-author from the Medical School. “We believe the new model is hurting patients and leaving providers with limited treatment options. There needs to be regulatory policies in place that help to counteract such exorbitant price hikes.”

In some cases, the inflated drug prices are disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations such as immigrants and refugees, making necessary treatments unavailable to patients. These patients often have little or no access to insurance, increasing the severity of the health disparities.

“This is an issue affecting everyone - patients, healthcare providers, policymakers,” said Alpern. “When essential medicines become disproportionately cost prohibitive to vulnerable patients it strikes a chord with people.”

Alpern, collaborating with associate professors, John Song, M.D., and William Stauffer, M.D., from the Medical School, believe other medications on the World Health Organization (WHO) List of Essential Medicines may be targeted to adapt to the pharmaceutical model.

“It is concerning that many anti-infective medications on the list share the same characteristics (produced by only a few manufacturers, limited alternative options, treat conditions leading to morbidity and mortality without treatment) as the drugs whose prices have skyrocketed,” said Alpern. “This suggests there are many essential drugs at risk of substantial price hikes.”

The rising prices leave providers prescribing medications they know are unaffordable, relying on alternatives that are not first-line treatments or assisting patients in acquiring medication through unregulated sources.