WASHINGTON — Like many Americans, Cindy Biter thinks drug costs are a problem. She’s not sure what to do about them, though — and, as a Republican, she’s skeptical about the federal government intervening in the free market.
But when she hears the pharmaceutical industry’s argument that government action to limit the prices of prescription drugs could stifle innovation and lead to fewer medicines, she doesn’t sound convinced.
“I don’t deny anybody making a little money or having a successful business, but when you read about these pharmaceutical companies having billions and billions of dollars in profits — where’s it going?” Biter, 52, who lives in the Dallas area, told STAT in an interview. “Are they just greedy?”
She’s not alone.
A new poll by STAT and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found significant skepticism about one of the drug industry’s most prevalent talking points. Almost two-thirds of Americans said they did not believe that Medicare negotiating with drug companies to lower prices would lead to fewer medicines being developed. And a majority — 55 percent — believes that even outright price controls wouldn’t slow the flow of new drugs.
Those are two specific examples, but the findings suggest that Americans reject a key counterargument the industry makes whenever the specter of government action on drug costs comes up: The current system, while imperfect, allows drug companies to create breakthrough lifesaving medications. They warn that any major changes, particularly more government involvement, could hamper that.
STAT-Harvard Poll on Drug Prices
Based on a telephone poll of 1,023 US adults conducted Nov. 4-8.
The STAT-Harvard poll points to several reasons underlying the public’s attitude. It found that twice as many Americans — 53 percent vs. 25 percent — thought company profits contributed the most to the price of prescription drugs than thought it was the cost of research. Another 15 percent said marketing and advertising costs were the biggest factor.
“They don’t think what’s causing this is [primarily] the cost of medical research,” said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard who directed the poll. “The industry argument [that it’s research-and-development costs] is not what people see. They see it as profits and advertising.”
The percentage identifying profits as the major driver of drug costs has climbed from 42 percent in 2003, when a Harris Poll asked a similar question.
Read more: Dismayed at drug prices, public supports Democrats’ ideas
The new poll also shows that the public’s perception of how well the pharmaceutical industry is serving consumers has soured considerably: 49 percent said it is doing a good job, compared with 79 percent who held that view in a 1997 Harris Poll
The STAT-Harvard poll of 1,023 US adults was conducted by telephone Nov. 4-8 and has a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
Read the full poll results here.
Robert Zirkelbach, senior vice president for communications at Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry’s lobbying group, said the increase in out-of-pocket costs for many Americans under their insurance plans and a lack of nuance in news coverage of drug-price increases help explain the poll’s findings.
“Patients are feeling more of the costs of medicine than they have in the past,” he said. “It’s changing how they’re feeling.”
He emphasized the pharmaceutical industry’s success in researching and developing new breakthrough treatments and argued that the focus should be on the long-term value that those medicines provide.
“These medicines are completely transforming the lives of patients,” Zirkelbach said.
While one might expect Democrats to be unconvinced by the industry’s message that government intervention would hurt drug discovery, even Republicans who participated in the poll and agreed to be interviewed by STAT were dubious.
“It’s a tough one for me,” said Jerry McMinn, a 29-year-old Republican from Arizona. “I’m for a free market, but when it comes to saving lives, I don’t think that’s what (pharmaceutical) companies are in business for. They want to make money. They think if the government gets involved, they won’t make as much profit.”
McMinn said he would support government action on high-cost, life-saving medicines like cancer drugs. Biter floated the idea of a government subsidy to help low-income people afford prescriptions, citing the example of people she knew taking cancer drugs that cost $1,000 a month.
Scott Ascher, a 41-year-old public works foreman from Sussex, Wis., said he thinks it would be helpful if drug companies explained how much it costs for them to develop a drug. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well as health insurers, support having drug makers disclose their research-and-development costs.
“Who are we to go up against what they say? Do they open up their books to say, ‘This is what’s going on’? You can’t argue with one side of the story,” said Ascher, another Republican. Drug companies could justify a price increase by showing their costs to produce a treatment, he continued. “Show me that in the numbers.”
The industry is opposed to such transparency measures, which have been proposed at the state level as well, arguing that the numbers could be misleading because research isn’t always linear from start to finish and even failed research is sometimes useful in developing other drugs down the road.