The unaffordable cost of pharmaceuticals has deadly side effects

Medical conditions do not discriminate based on economic standing- whether you can come from wealth or are struggling to get by, anyone can face poor health suddenly. Because of this, the costs for many common drug-based treatments are often out of reach for many who need them. Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash.

In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted approval for a new drug for Alzheimer’s disease, Aduhelm, with a generic name of aducanumab, making it the first drug approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease since 2003. The drug works by removing amyloid-beta plaque buildup — sticky, misfolded proteins — in a patient’s brain, making it the first drug to treat Alzheimer’s through this mechanism. Aduhelm was approved via the FDA’s accelerated approval pathway due to its beneficial effects in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. 

However, it did not quite have the intended effect. Although part of this reason is because its efficacy in slowing memory loss is still largely unknown, a big factor is because it has not been able to reach nearly enough patients due to its exorbitant cost. 

A little while ago, I wrote about how the cost of health care in the U.S. is still unaffordable for the vast majority of the population, mainly focusing on the care received in pre-hospital and hospital settings in terms of insurance. I briefly touched upon pharmaceutical costs, but truth be told, the outrageous costs of pharmaceuticals and the industry many of us know as Big Pharma warrants a separate article. 

Aduhelm currently costs about $56,000 and most insurers are not currently willing to pay the steep price for it. Medicare, for example, is only expected to begin covering the costs of the drug in 2022, after there has been more testing to determine how effective the drug is in preventing memory loss.  

In the case of Aduhelm, it is a relatively new drug and two separate studies have found conflicting results regarding the efficacy of it, but there is still a plethora of examples of pharmaceuticals priced incredibly high for no apparent reason other than greed. 

One example of this is a hormone-blocking drug with histrelin, often used for those diagnosed with central precocious puberty, as well as many transgender patients, made by the company Endo Pharmaceuticals. The company had two identical drugs, both containing 50 milligrams of histrelin; however, one of the drugs, Vantas, faced a shortage and was discontinued in September. Vantas was also about eight times cheaper than its counterpart, Supprelin LA, thus harming those who relied on the drug. Insurance may pay a good portion of the cost of Supprelin LA, but that is assuming those who need it have adequate insurance to do so. In addition, especially for transgender patients, insurance may be largely unwilling to pay any part of the cost as it is seen as “off-brand.” 

Doctors often prescribe treatments based on what is needed without having much control over price. Because pharmaceutical companies can price their product however they want, this can lead to situations in which extremely important medicine can be unaffordable for patients who need it. Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash.

It is clear pharmaceutical companies care more about greed and profit rather than the people who are supposed to benefit from their treatments — this is one of the many side effects of the capitalist society we live in. Pharmaceutical companies have too much control, therefore taking advantage of those who desperately need certain medications simply so that they can make a profit. People’s lives and health should be valued more than the profits of pharmaceutical companies make. 

Unfortunately, this is not a common occurrence. According to Erin Fox, senior director of Drug Information and Support Services at University of Utah Health hospitals who was quoted in an NPR article on the discontinuation of Vantas, due to the free market, companies can “discontinue anything … at any time for any reason,” regardless of how beneficial the drug is. 

Pharmaceutical companies have too much power and need more regulations so this cannot occur. Countless medications have been made unaffordable due to pharmaceutical greed, putting the lives of millions at risk. 

Other prime examples of necessary medications and treatments that have become largely unaffordable now include both insulin and epinephrine. Insulin prices have been rising for years, making it out of reach for many of those who are insulin-dependent. Newer versions of insulin, which are now being prescribed with greater frequency, are usually between $175 and $300, and most people who require insulin to manage their diabetes end up using between two and three vials of insulin per month.  

As of 2019, it was estimated that roughly a quarter of insulin-dependent diabetes patients in the U.S. take smaller doses of insulin or skip them altogether, which can cause hyperglycemia leading to diabetic ketoacidosis. This is extremely dangerous for patients, as it means their blood pH is too acidic, and if left untreated can lead a coma or death. 

Epinephrine as a treatment for severe allergic reactions is a very common prescription, and is one of very few options availible to those with serious allergies. The spike in cost in recent years has not been reflected by any increase in cost to produce, and is simply fueled by pharmaceutical companies’ greed. Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash.

Epinephrine is often used in the form of an EpiPen to treat anaphylactic shock associated with severe allergic reactions. In 2007, an EpiPen kit (containing two auto-injectors) cost about $94, which was no small price. Today, the cost for an EpiPen kit is over $700. For those who have a history of severe allergic reactions and who need an EpiPen in case of anaphylactic shock, not being able to afford this treatment could potentially be lethal. Anaphylactic shock is characterized by the involvement of two or more body systems, and one of those systems is generally airway compromise. Not getting enough oxygen for an extended period of time can cause irreversible brain damage and, in severe cases, death. 

Pharmaceutical companies have too much control over their prices. People’s lives and livelihoods should not be compromised due to pharmaceutical greed. It speaks to a significant problem with the lack of regulations for these companies, as well as the way insurance works in this nation. Which means, unfortunately, there is no simple fix that would be permanent enough to have the greatest effect. 

However, it is important to address this issue sooner rather than later, especially given the fact that the world — not only this nation — is still suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of COVID-19, Pfizer recently reported about an experimental pill, called Paxlovid that reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by about 89% for those in high-risk populations. The pill has so far had the greatest effects if administered within the first five days of showingCOVID-19 symptoms. 

If this pill receives FDA approval, it is immensely important that it is made financially-accessible for everyone in the country, unlike many of the necessary medications available today. Paxlovid cannot follow the pattern of treatments and pharmaceuticals like insulin, epinephrine, Aduhelm or Supprelin LA which are clearly unaffordable for many across the nation. 

The power that pharmaceutical companies have needs to be severely re-evaluated. Necessary medications cannot continue being unaffordable, thus putting the vast majority of the populations at risk, just so that big pharmaceutical companies can reap the rewards. The health care system, is in desperate need of change, whether that is in the form of a universal health care system, more regulations regarding the prices of pharmaceuticals or changing the entire system altogether. 

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