One key study highlights how cancer-drug prices continue to rise in the US – even if they don’t elsewhere

Two hands around six bottles of cholesterol medication on a table
US cancer-drug prices are increasing faster than inflation. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
  • There is increasing interest in the federal government in lowering prescription drug prices.
  • The US spends more than twice what other countries with similar income levels do on prescriptions.
  • US cancer-drug prices are rising faster than inflation, while European countries’ are falling.
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As the federal government considers a plan to lower the price of some costly drugs, researchers have found that while US cancer-drug prices consistently rise faster than inflation, our European counterparts have seen prices fall.

The US spends more than double what other industrialized countries do per capita on prescription drugs, and 79% of Americans agree that the cost of prescription drugs is too high.

A JAMA Oncology economic evaluation of cancer-drug prices in the US, England, Germany, and Switzerland (conducted by a group of researchers that included Dr. Kerstin Vokinger of the University of Zurich and Dr. Aaron Kesselheim of Harvard Medical School) suggests that the problem might be especially acute in cancer-drug pricing.

Drug prices keep going up in the US

The study, published in July, found that between 2009 and 2019, 74% of the 65 cancer drugs the group looked at increased in price faster than the rate of inflation. The median monthly treatment cost rose from $US5,790 ($AU7,859) in 2009-10 to $US14 ($AU19), 580 in 2018-19.

Meanwhile, only 13% of drugs in Switzerland, 2% of drugs in England, and zero drugs in Germany experienced similar price increases that rose faster than the inflation.

Much of this difference could be due to how these countries price drugs. The US doesn’t negotiate drug prices, allowing pharmaceutical companies to charge whatever they think insurers will pay. In the UK, Germany, and Switzerland, the government or an organization of insurers negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on drug prices.

Because of the lack of price increases, Vokinger, Kesselheim, and their colleagues found that over time, cancer-drug prices in Europe actually decreased over time when accounting for inflation.

But they found that there was no relationship between a drug’s effectiveness in reducing tumors and its price or price increase in any country.