Coming soon to TV commercials: drug prices?

Coming soon to TV commercials: drug prices? October 16, 2018

In the news today (in this case, via AP):  “US wants drug prices in TV ads: ‘Patients deserve to know’.”

The federal government said Monday that it wants to force drugmakers to disclose prices for prescription medicines in their TV commercials. . . .

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar unveiled a proposal that would apply to all brand-name drugs covered by the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which is most medicines. . . .

Most Americans don’t pay the full price for prescriptions — one reason drugmakers have opposed disclosing the list prices, arguing that would just confuse the public. But insurance plans base their copayments on the list price set by drugmakers. And patients with high-deductibles plans or no insurance sometimes pay full price.

I think that’s an awesome idea.

It’s already the case that drugmakers are required to list side-effects of the drugs they market on TV. Yes, the narrator does so in a manner designed so that viewers won’t really digest the information, with a happy grandmother playing with her childen now that the medicine has freed her from arthritis or depression or whatever her ailment is, or a woman freed to wear a bathing suit now that she’s no longer shamed by her condition, with joyful music in the background, but nonetheless, the drugmakers comply.  Why not also list drug prices?

After all, some of these medications are not as cheap as you’d think they’d be for how commonly they’re on TV.  Humira, used for everything from arthritis to Crohn’s to psoriasis, runs over $7,000 per month for its use as a Crohn’s treatment.  A 2015 report lists eye-popping numbers, many of them running well into 6 digits for a treatment cycle or a year’s worth of medication, for a long list of medications, though many of them are visibly for rare diseases or deadly cancers, and are lifesaving for those who receive them.  At the same time, others are high-priced treatments for more ordinary conditions, conditions where there may be a range of treatment options, and the fortunate patient, when faced with a high deductible, will have a doctor who will be likewise well-versed in the costs and benefits of those treatment options — but the reality is that doctors generally don’t, and can’t, keep track of which drugs are on what formularies and what the negotiated agreements are with various insurance plans, or to what extent uninsured patients can benefit from patient assistance programs or whether they even qualify based on income requirements.

Would a requirement that Humira commercials state, “the MSRP for Humira is $7,500 per month” or “the list price for Otezla is $3,500 per month” provide meaningful information for patients with health insurance which negotiates a lower rate?  Not in itself.  But the knowledge that they’d have to disclose this information could help at the margins, in sparking conversations with doctors about price and value, and the drug companies themselves, in cases where their list prices are eye-poppingly higher than the negotiated discounts with insurers, and priced that way to give them leverage, to allow them to collect more revenue from the government, and to cash in on uninsured folk who for whatever reason don’t seek out or don’t qualify for drug assistance programs, may be shamed into ending, or moderating these tactics, anyway.

And no, making the list prices available on a website rather than as part of the commercial, won’t have anything remotely like the same effect — which is why the drugmakers are proposing the website alternative.


Image from;; public domain

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