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• Drug pricing trends suggest that prices may be stabilizing, but they are not coming down.
• Prices aren’t going up as fast as they were before, though that also doesn't bring consumers much relief.
At the 2020 State of the Union, President Donald Trump zeroed in on prescription drug prices, arguing that his administration is "taking on the big pharmaceutical companies."
Among the evidence for that claim: a talking point the administration has been using since last April.
"I was pleased to announce last year that, for the first time in 51 years, the cost of prescription drugs actually went down," Trump said.
Experts told us the data remains essentially unchanged. Drug prices are still not going down.
Last spring, Trump’s team pulled this claim from two sources: A 2018 report from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers and data comparing the January 2019 Consumer Price Index for drugs to the January 2018 one. The CPI data suggested a decline in drug prices.
But when we spoke to experts, they quickly debunked this position. For one thing, CPI data is imperfect — it shows list prices, rather than what consumers pay at the pharmacy counter. For another, it only covers drugs sold through retail, which accounts for about three-quarters of all prescriptions. That misses high-priced specialty drugs which are only sold through mail.
Plus, other metrics showed that drug prices had in fact gone up, although by very little. Last April, for instance, the same CPI data indicated an increase — between April 2018 and April 2019, drug prices had increased by 0.3%. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation also suggested an increase in total spending on drug prices that year, even if growth had slowed.
Today, prices aren’t going up as fast as they were before, said Stacie Dusetzina, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University, who studies drug pricing. But they’re still going up.
"That probably doesn’t provide the average person with much relief," she said.
Meanwhile, there’s the question of individual list price increases. (List prices are defined as what’s charged before rebates — a number few people pay, but that dictates negotiations.) The CPI data paints with a broad brush, drug pricing analysts said, obscuring just how many drugs have seen and continue to see their prices go up.
In 2019, 4,311 prescription drugs experienced a price hike, with the average increase hovering around 21%, according to data compiled by Rx Savings Solutions, a consulting group. Meanwhile, 619 drugs had price dips.
And already in 2020, 2,519 drugs have increased prices. The average hike so far this year is 6.9%. Meanwhile, 70 drugs have had their prices go down. Typically, branded drugs increase their prices early in the year, and generics do so later, said Michael Rea, the CEO of Rx Savings Solutions. When generics post their price increases, the 2020 average price hike will likely go up.
"As a broad brush stroke, the story remains the same. Drug prices are going up, not down," Rea said.
Trump said that in 2018, "for the first time in 51 years, the cost of prescription drugs went down."
Nothing has changed since our previous rulings on this statement. And the continued drug pricing trend suggests that prices may be stabilizing, but they are not coming down. And consumers are not experiencing that relief.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
KHN/Politifact, "Fact-checking Donald Trump's claim that drug prices are going down," May 22, 2019
Email interview with Michael Rea, CEO of Rx Savings Solutions, Jan. 21, 2020
Telephone interview with Stacie Dusetzina, associate health policy professor at Vanderbilt University, Feb. 3, 2020
Email interview with Walid Gellad, associate health policy professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Jan. 30, 2020
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