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Rising Medication Costs and What They Mean for Seniors

Kristen Hicks
By Kristen HicksMarch 14, 2019

As if aging wasn’t enough of a pain on its own, many of the health afflictions that come with age also bring a high price tag. In the United States, a big part of the issue comes in the form of rising medication costs.

Learn more about medication costs in the U.S. and read our tips on four ways that you can save money on prescriptions.

Medication Costs

Medicare coverage can help with many other health care needs, yet medication costs can still be staggering for seniors who need prescription drugs that either aren’t covered by their Medicare Part D plan or that are still extremely expensive in spite of the coverage.

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The annual AARP Public Policy Institute report consistently finds that the price of the most popular drugs used by seniors increases every year, faster than the rate of inflation. In 2017, drug prices went up 8.4%, in comparison to 2.1% inflation.

The high cost of prescription drugs is one factor in the growing number of retirees filing for bankruptcy. Even if you’ve worked and saved your whole life, there was no reasonable way to plan for drug prices that increase at these kinds of rates and one of the most frustrating parts of it all – is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Overpriced Medications in the U.S.

The Initiative for Medicines, Access and Knowledge (I-MAK) has done research into the costs of some of the most popular medicines on the market and released reports that point to the same finding in many cases: U.S. patent laws play a key role in rising prescription drug prices.

The companies behind many of the medicines that seniors have come to depend on in recent years have found ways to strategically use the patent system to stretch out how long they can keep a monopoly on their drugs. In addition to the initial patent they take out when a new drug is developed, they creatively find ways to apply for patents on the same drug — patents for different compounds of the drug and different potential uses or things they think their competitors might want to do with the drug.

“Largely it is a standard practice for companies to get out as many patents as possible in order to protect their territory,” says Tahir Amin, the co-executive director and co-founder of I-MAK.

With each new patent, they extend the amount of time they have sole rights to the drug, meaning no competitor can release a generic version. “This behavior of having many patents on a drug is across the board,” Amin adds. Their research shows the practice is common throughout the industry, applying to many drugs created by many pharmaceutical companies.

For as long as one company controls access to a particular drug, they have little reason to reduce medication costs and every reason to increase their profits by bumping the price up as high as they can. Which then drives prices up every year.

4 Ways to Save Money on Medications

Understanding why your medications are so costly doesn’t solve the problem for you. You still need the prescription drugs you do and still have limited money to spend on them.

Fortunately, there are a few options that you have to help bring your medication costs down:

1. Ask about generics or other alternatives.

As I-MAK’s research emphasizes, some of the prescription drugs you need simply won’t have generic options available. But many types of drugs do, and doctors don’t always think to mention the generic options when writing out a prescription. So be proactive about asking.

Even when a generic option isn’t available for a specific medication, you may be able to start by trying a different, more affordable drug that treats the same thing. Ask your doctor to go over all of your options so you can make a more informed decision.

2. Get the right Medicare plan.

Do your research to figure out the different Medicare prescription plans available in your area. Specifically, ask providers which of the prescriptions your doctor recommends they cover and how much they cost. Just because a plan covers a particular drug doesn’t mean that makes it affordable. Enbrel, an arthritis drug included in I-MAK’s report about over-patenting, still typically costs over $1,000 for patients with various Medicare prescription plans.

Nonetheless, the right Medicare plan can potentially save you a lot of money on the main drugs you need.

3. Look for coupons and discounts.

Pharmacy discount cards and coupon sites can save you up to 80% on the cost of prescription drugs. Some pharmacies also have their own discount programs that can help you bring medication costs down as well.

Do some research into available coupons and discounts for your medication and ask your pharmacist about any recommendations they have.

4. Look into assistance programs.

Both drug companies and government entities sometimes provide assistance programs to help seniors out with the cost of their medications.

Check the prescription drug provider’s website to see if they offer any assistance programs. Healthfinder.gov and NeedyMeds both offer resources for helping you find relevant programs you may qualify for.

What Seniors Can Do About Rising Medication Costs

Prescription drug prices are both a big problem for individuals struggling to make ends meet and a larger societal problem that’s bad for the U.S. In addition to looking for ways to make your own drugs more affordable, consider how you can help be a part of the bigger solution.

According to Amin, we should all be asking: “Why is it that seniors in the European markets are able to get access to a number of these drugs… and yet in the United States, they’re not able to?”

“The policies that the United States… doesn’t favor the consumers, it’s largely in favor of the corporation,” he explains. “Seniors need to be able to speak to their representatives.”

If you want access to the drugs you need at better rates and you want your children to be able to access them when the time comes as well, call your representatives and tell them so. Amin recommends calling and asking, “Why are companies able to have these monopoly strongholds on products for so long?”

Legislative solutions can be slow, but they’re unlikely to happen at all without pressure from the people most affected by the problem. Sharing your personal experience can bring a human face to the problem, which might help spur your representative to act.

What are your thoughts on rising medication costs in the U.S.? We’d like to hear from you in the comments below.

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