The Prescription Escalator

Ask anyone and they will tell you that their prescription costs are rising. But generic drug prices are falling (also here) and generics are 80-90 percent of all prescriptions. Moreover, although branded drugs are expensive total out-of-pocket costs for the population as a whole are flat or even decreasing as Michael Mandel points out:

[A] May 2019 research report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported that average out-of-pocket spending for prescribed medications, among persons who obtained at least one prescribed medication, declined from $327 in 2009 to $238 by 2016, a decrease of 27 percent. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey shows that average household spending on prescription drugs fell by 11% between 2013 and 2018.

Moreover, OECD data shows that average out- of-pocket spending on prescribed medicines in the United States ($143 per capita in 2017) is actually lower than countries such as Canada ($144), Korea ($156), Norway ($178), and Switzerland ($215).

So are people simply mistaken about what they are experiencing? Not quite. Mandel uses the metaphor of the prescription escalator to explain the apparent paradox:

It turns out that an escalator is the appropriate model for prescription drug costs for individuals. As people get older, they unwillingly ride the prescription escalator, with their average spending on prescription drugs rising by about 5-6% per year. This figure assumes no change in the underlying price of drugs. Rather, people fill more prescriptions as they age.

In other words, every individual experiences an increase in prescription costs as they age even though for the population as a whole prescription prices are flat or falling–a form of Simpson’s paradox. The driver of higher costs is usage not price. People aged 65-74 have on average 25 (!) prescriptions to fill, more than two and half times as many as people aged 25-34 (about 9 per year).

Understanding the prescription escalator is important because regulating drug prices–aside from being a bad idea–won’t solve the perceived problem.

…even if drug reform efforts were successful and there were no more increases in drug costs, every individual would still face a 5.6% increase each year in drug spending as they got older. That would total 30% after five years, and 70% after ten years, across the board.These are enormous increases.

Indeed, the prescription escalator is a sign of success. If drugs weren’t successful we wouldn’t buy more of them when we were older and sicker and costs wouldn’t rise.


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