MS Drug Prices May Abate with Transparency After Eightfold Rise Since 1996

Amid outcries over exorbitant drug prices, the latest MS drug has been priced at $65,000 -- shy of the average of $78,000, but still several times higher than the $10,000 average in 1996. Drug manufacturers have hiked prices for other existing drugs even as new options have come on the market.

Expensive, complex drugs to treat Multiple Sclerosis are just getting more expensive, even as more options come onto the market. But a lower-than-expected opening price of a new drug, Ocrevus, may give hope that more price transparency and outrage over high prices will constrain the greed of pharmaceutical companies.

The median annual price for MS drugs has risen from $10,000 in 1996 to $78,000. But Ocrevus came onto the market this year at $65,000.

“I believe that Ocrevus was brought onto market at a lower price mainly for PR reasons,” said Dr. Dennis Bourdette, an Oregon Health & Science University professor of neurology. “That was made possible by people shining a light on this issue.”

That acknowledgement likely helped California pass a landmark drug price transparency law this year, a move Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, plans to replicate in Oregon in next year’s legislative session.

Multiple Sclerosis is not a fatal condition, but it is disabling without consistent medication. It affects 500,000 Americans and 7,000 Oregonians. Paying for its treatment with these high-cost drugs has been a prime concern of health insurers, Oregon Medicaid plans and the state Public Employee Benefit Board. The individual drugs have risen about 14 percent each year for an annual treatment.

Bourdette told lawmakers in Salem this week that the nearly eightfold rise in price for MS drugs in the past 20 years is not being driven by the new drugs. In a sign of market failure, more competing drugs have led to higher prices for the old drugs, as the old drugs raise their prices to meet what the pharmaceutical manufacturers can get away with for their new drugs.

Betaseron and Copaxone have been around since the early 1990s, when they cost less than $10,000 a year. But now the price of these same drugs is fixed above $86,000. “The prices of drugs that have been stable rose to match the price of new competitors,” Bourdette said.

“They’re price-gouging,” said Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield.

A lack of price regulation has made patients and health insurers captive to whatever ransom the drug manufacturers demand, as Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, who lives with MS, knows all too well:

“I’ve been rock-solid stable for 10 years. Do you think I’m going to switch my drugs? I’m not,” Steiner Hayward said, even as she’s seen the price of her drug more than double since she started taking it, a pass primarily absorbed by her health insurer, and passed off onto consumers and businesses across the board in steadily rising premiums. Her drug rose from $7,000 a dose in 2007 to $16,000 a dose today. “It blows my mind,” she said.

The problem is entrenched because pharmaceutical companies have used their enormous profits to bankroll the political campaigns of politicians in Congress as well as state capitols across the country, including Salem. They have also bought off many patient advocacy groups, which, hard up for funding have come to depend on handouts from PhRMA.

That complicity helped doom a more sweeping bill from Nosse earlier this year, as well as any compromise measures. Nosse's preferred bill would have had the state set prices for the most expensive drugs.

But as the runaway pricing reaches absurd levels, Bourdette said the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has been balking at the drug companies’ behavior: “They’ve been very vocal about the rising cost.”

Chris may be reached at [email protected]

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