Unit prices for drugs rising rapidly; more competition needed

Drug costs for hospital inpatients increased more than 38 percent per admission between 2013 and 2015, with unit pricing increasing both low- and high-volume branded and generic drugs, according to a report by the University of Chicago commissioned by the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the Federation of American Hospitals (FAH). Almost half of the drugs evaluated for the study had no generic competition.

The researchers conducted a survey of all U.S. community hospitals and analyzed the results of 712 that responded. Additionally, two group purchasing organization (GPOs) representing more than 1,400 community hospital contributed price and spending data on a subset of drugs to the study. Of the drugs sampled, many were high-volume drugs, and in most cases the drugs were not new entrants into the market.

Increases in unit prices outpace Medicare reimbursement

Between fiscal years 2013 and 2015, annual inpatient drug spending saw an increase of 23.4 percent on average—a per-admission increase of 38.7 percent. More than 90 percent of the hospitals involved in the study reported that the price increases had a moderate or severe effect on the ability to manage the cost of patient care overall; one-third reported that the effect was severe. Growth of the unit prices for drugs, and not volume, was the primary cause of the increase in drug spending. The report noted that, because of delays in updating the pharmaceutical index, Medicare reimbursement cannot keep up with the rapid rise in drug prices, and the method of reimbursement for hospitals—based on a single prospective amount for all non-physician services—compounds the impact of rising drug costs. In these cases, hospitals must absorb the excess costs.

AHA’s recommendations

To address these issues, the AHA recommends an increase in generic competition, improved transparency, the adoption of a value-based payment model for drug purchasing, increased access to needed drugs, and the alignment of incentives toward high value. With the goal of increasing generic competition, the federal government should appropriate additional resources to the FDA to process new drug applications and consider fast-tracking generic applications when no or limited generic competition exists. The AHA also recommends deeming pay-for-delay tactics presumptively illegal. Additionally, the lack of information available regarding drug pricing challenges payers’ abilities to make decisions regarding coverage and pricing. To address the issue, the AHA suggests increasing disclosure requirements related to drug pricing, research, and development at the time of application. Consumer- and provider-facing reports on drug pricing would help providers and consumers to make informed decisions.

The AHA argues that a value-based payment model for drug purchasing, under which payment varies for a drug based on clinical effectiveness for the indications for which it has been approved, would help drugs become more affordable for patients and providers. Thus, a comparative effectiveness evidence base would be critical to supporting providers in making care decisions. To improve access to needed drugs, the AHA recommends that the government allow providers and patients to reimport drugs that were manufactured in the U.S. and sent to other countries for sale and distribution and require mandatory, inflation-based rebates for Medicare drugs. Finally, the AHA argues aligning incentives toward high value by implementing stricter requirements on direct-to-consumer advertising, removing tax incentives for drug promotion activities, and developing prescriber education and clinical decision support tools.