What is going on with generic drug prices?

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Fran Barker called today. She was in a panic because the cost of her monthly prescription of 150 mg amitriptyline tablets had gone up to $130 from $13 the month before.

Amitriptyline has been available in this country since 1961, and the 100 mg strength was on Walmart’s list of $4/month drugs the last time I looked at it a few months ago.

I called Fran’s pharmacy. Two of the 75 mg tablets would be less expensive, about $75 for a one month supply, but this would still be a hardship for Fran, who is disabled and lacks prescription coverage.

A few months ago I read that the older, generic statin drugs for cholesterol were suddenly not on Walmart’s $4 list due to sudden price increases by the manufacturers.

Something similar happened to insulin a few years ago — it went from a few dollars to $80 per vial without any explanation that I was aware of.

I have Googled around a few times to try to find out what is happening, or what people think is happening, but the dramatic price increases I have run into don’t seem to be getting much press.

It appears to me that the pharmaceutical companies have stopped their price competition, possibly by secretly dividing up the market and definitely by limiting supplies. If that is true, antitrust laws are likely being broken. Meanwhile, people with chronic illnesses are being squeezed financially even more than they already have been.

Generic drugs used to be a low margin product for manufacturers, but a major profit for drug stores. With newer generics, whose brand name competitors are still on the market, pharmacies may buy them for 10% of what they pay for the brand and sell them for 70% of the brand name price. Now, with their purchase prices going up on one generic after another, their markup is likely shrinking to the levels of brand name drugs. This will likely drive independent pharmacies out of business.

We already had a great deal of mystery and intrigue around pharmaceutical pricing and actual insurance payments for prescription drugs. Just like doctors and patients have trouble figuring out how much MRIs and artificial knee joints cost, the real cost of pharmaceuticals is often unobtainable. I can try to choose lower cost medications by looking up the average retail cost on Epocrates, but insurance companies and drug manufacturers often negotiate deals that make favored otherwise expensive drugs cost less than non-favored drugs with lower published prices.

This whole drug price situation is really the stuff of mobster movies. Or imagine a sitcom about what happens when gasoline (petrol) prices increase by 900% overnight. That wouldn’t be funny for very long. People would complain loudly about being held hostage or extorted.

But is anybody complaining about what is happening now with drug prices? Am I just not hearing about it because I gave up watching TV? Or am I an early voice in the wilderness? You tell me.

“A Country Doctor” is a family physician who blogs at A Country Doctor Writes:.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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