WASHINGTON — Most Americans believe that the prices of brand-name prescription drugs have become unreasonable, and their dismay is leading to wide support for government action to keep costs down, including letting Medicare negotiate prices with drug companies, according to a new poll by STAT and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The poll found strong support across party lines for the Medicare negotiations idea, which is a centerpiece of all of the Democratic presidential candidates’ proposals to contain drug costs.
About 7 out of 10 Americans, including two-thirds of Republicans, said Medicare, the federal health insurance program for older and disabled Americans, should be able to negotiate lower prices for all prescription drugs. Another 13 percent support negotiations for just high-cost drugs for illnesses such as hepatitis C or cancer.
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But there are also signs that the strong public support may be less about a specific proposal and more about the general idea that the government should do something — mainly about sky-high prices for new drugs and the jaw-dropping increases for older medicines that have been trumpeted in headlines.
Read more: Public souring on drug industry
More than 9 out of 10 people said it was unreasonable to raise the price of a life-saving antiparasitic drug used by people with AIDS from $13.50 to $750 a pill, a step recently taken by Turing Pharmaceuticals. Similar numbers called it unreasonable to price a new drug that cures hepatitis C at $1,125 per pill — nearly $100,000 for a full course of treatment — a decision by Gilead Sciences that drew widespread scrutiny.
More broadly, about three-quarters of the public believe the prices of brand-name prescription drugs are unreasonable, while 1 in 4 expressed that view about generics.
STAT-Harvard Poll on Drug Prices
Based on a telephone poll of 1,023 US adults conducted Nov. 4-8.
The poll found that the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation has suffered substantial damage. Barely half of all Americans now say drug companies are doing a good job for their customers, compared with the nearly 8 out of 10 who expressed that kind of confidence in a 1997 Harris Poll.
And they soundly rejected the industry’s argument that government action against rising drug costs would slow the development of new drugs. Sixty-four percent said they did not believe that would happen if Medicare negotiated lower prices, while 26 percent said they believed it could.
Read the full poll results here.
“I feel like there definitely needs to be something done … The government definitely needs to do something to crack down on the price gouging,” said Christine Lintz, a Michigan Republican who participated in the poll and agreed to a follow-up interview. She said she takes prescription medication for migraines that is “outrageously expensive” and would be unaffordable if she didn’t have health insurance.
That doesn’t mean most Americans are struggling with high drug costs themselves. Just 2 out of 10 said prescription drug prices are a major problem for them and their family. Among the uninsured, 3 out of 10 said drug prices are a major problem.
The fact that the support for Medicare negotiations is so high, even though few people are personally experiencing high drug costs, suggests that their reactions are being driven by the perception that drug prices have become “just unreasonable” for others, according to Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard who directed the poll.
“It’s not people’s experience. It’s people’s outrage,” said Blendon.
Looking to the future, the public said they were most concerned about rising prices of drugs for common conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol rather than very high prices for medicines to treat serious diseases such as cancer or hepatitis.
The STAT-Harvard poll of 1,023 US adults was conducted by telephone from Nov. 4-8. It has a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
In the race between the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, the survey found that Democrats overwhelmingly thought Hillary Clinton would do a better job than Bernie Sanders in restraining drug prices, by a margin of 60 percent to 25 percent. Independents, however, gave the edge to Sanders, 42 percent to 31 percent.
Both declared that the poll shows the public backs their solutions to rising drug prices.
“This new data underscores what Hillary Clinton has been saying for months: that we must get skyrocketing prescription drug costs under control so that families and seniors can keep more money in their pockets,” said Clinton campaign spokesman Ian Sams.
In a statement, Sanders said “we need to do everything we can to substantially lower drug prices. That means Medicare should be able to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices. That also means we should be able to import lower-cost drugs from Canada and Europe.”
On the Republican side, both Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson have criticized the most widely publicized examples of high drug prices, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush have proposed streamlining regulations by overhauling the Food and Drug Administration. Rubio and Cruz, declined to comment on the survey; Carson and Bush did not respond to requests for comment.
The poll suggests that the public hasn’t settled on a preferred option for dealing with high drug prices. There’s no strong party advantage on the issue, with 39 percent saying they have more confidence in Democrats to slow the growth of drug prices and 30 percent saying they have more confidence in the Republicans.
It also matters how potential government action on drug costs is framed. When it’s described as “price controls” under Medicare rather than “negotiating prices,” there’s a sharp drop-off in support among Republicans and senior citizens.
The difference is biggest with seniors — 71 percent of people age 65 and older support “negotiating prices,” but only 44 percent want “price controls.” That’s likely because they’ve had bad experiences with them, like the gasoline price controls in the 1970s that helped create long lines at gas pumps, said Blendon.
When given a choice of different options for dealing with extreme price hikes and the most expensive new drugs, Americans were divided between letting the government negotiate lower prices and approaches intended to promote competition: allowing people to import cheaper drugs from other countries — another proposal supported by the leading Democratic presidential candidates — and reducing regulations and letting the market work, the preferred Republican approach.
Government negotiations was the most popular option and importing drugs came in second. Reducing regulations was the least preferred option, with the support of 1 out of 5 Americans, but Republicans favored it more strongly than Democrats.
The options aren’t mutually exclusive, Blendon noted — people could have easily picked two out of three. Still, “most people don’t see making markets work as the first choice,” he said, so the survey suggests that Republican presidential candidates might have to consider more aggressive proposals too.
In follow-up interviews, people who participated in the poll expressed a common theme: They’re not sure what the best solution is — they just want the government to do something.
“I think it would probably be impossible to have the kinds of regulations that other countries have. It wouldn’t work here,” said Lintz. Still, she added, “we need to look at some of the models other countries are using.”
Even when they’re skeptical of government action, some people are open to it because of the recent news coverage of price hikes — and sometimes, their own experiences at pharmacies.
“Unbelievable. I can’t believe what they charge for some prescriptions,” said Mary Frieberg, an independent voter from Pittsburgh. She said she often sees big price variations for the same prescription drugs from one pharmacy to another.
Frieberg doesn’t want the government to get involved too deeply in drug prices: “They want their hand in it, and so that could make the price go up.” At the same time, though, she has heard of big price increases and wants the government to step in to prevent them, because “somebody has to do something about it.”