Price Regulation of Pharmaceuticals

How much would a 10% reduction in price reduce pharmaceutical research and development? That is the key question in debates about reimportation of pharmaceuticals from Canada, price controls, and using the power of Medicare to bargain with pharmaceutical companies. In a recent paper from the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Daron Acemoglu and Joshua Linn suggest an answer.

Acemoglu and Linn’s paper is formally about a different issue; the effect of market size on innovation. What they find is that a 1 percent increase in the potential market size for a drug leads to an approximately 4 percent increase in the growth rate of new drugs in that category. In other words, if you are sick it is better to be sick with a common disease because the larger the potential market the more pharmaceutical firms will be willing to invest in research and development. Misery loves company.

Although they don’t mention it, this finding has implications for price controls. In the pharmaceutical market the major costs are all fixed costs (they don’t vary much with market size) so profit =P*Q-F. Acemoglu and Linn look at changes in Q but a 1% change in P has exactly the same effects on profits, and thus presumably on R&D, as a 1% change in Q.

[I no longer think the above is correct but I leave it here for the historical record, see My goof.]

We can expect, therefore, that a 1% reduction in price will reduce the growth rate of new drug entries by 4% and a 10% reduction in price will reduce new drug entries by 40%. That is a huge effect. I suspect that the authors have overestimated the effect but even if it were one-half the size would you be willing to trade a 10% reduction in price for a 20% reduction in the growth rate of new drugs? No one who understands what these numbers mean would think that is a good deal.


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