Fighting for change: Why do we pay so much for prescription drugs?

Some go outside U.S. for lower prescription prices

(Phil Walter/Getty Images)

HOUSTON – What would you do if you couldn't afford to buy the medication you needed to stay alive? Would you be willing to buy your prescription drugs outside the United States?

With the skyrocketing price of prescription drugs, this is a growing reality for many people.

At 62 years old, Belinda Smith is about to do one of the most expensive things she does all week: take her diabetes medication.

"This is my Humalog," she said. "It's a quick pen and I use this five or six times a day."

Humalog is one of the most widely used insulin drugs in the world. Millions of people depend on it to stay alive, and Smith is among them.

But like so many vital prescription drugs in the country, Humalog is expensive. 

"Nobody should have to pay that much money," Smith said. "It's ridiculous, when you can buy it for a fraction of the cost."

Several years ago, after losing her job and her health insurance and no longer being able to pay the $350 a month she was paying for Humalog, Smith decided to go outside the U.S. to get her insulin.

"I found a pharmacy in Canada that offered it to me for $80 a vial," Smith said. "That's like, a fourth of what I was paying. It was the same manufacturer. I couldn't believe it was so cheap, especially after I have paid $350 for years."

More and more Americans are now being forced to buy prescription drugs overseas, and it's not hard to see why. In the United States, residents are paying more than almost anyone else for prescription drugs.

For example, SSR Health, an investment research firm, looked into the different prices on the same drugs that are most commonly prescribed. The cholesterol-lowering medication Crestor 10MG is $86.50 in the United States for a month's supply. In Germany, the same exact drug is $40.50. In Canada, it's $32.10 and the cheapest we found was in Australia, where a month's supply is $8.70.

Why are we paying so much more in the U.S.?

"In most other developed countries, the government approaches drug companies and negotiates prices for all of their citizens," said Vivian Ho, a Rice University economist who is affiliated with Baker College. "So because they are such a large buyer, they are able to negotiate a much lower price." 

But that's not what is happening here. In the United States, health insurers negotiate with the big drug companies, and they all negotiate separately.
"In America, pharmaceutical manufacturers are granted government-approved monopolies, and then nothing is done about their price gouging," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.
Congressman Lloyd Doggett, of San Antonio, wants to change that. He leads the Task Force on Prescription Drugs and recently sponsored the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act.

"I joined several of my colleagues in introducing legislation calling for the importation of pharmaceuticals," Doggett said. "It's one of the ways we might force a little competition to try and reduce these monopoly prices."

As for Smith, she wants the Trump administration and Congress to begin battling "Big Pharma" to bring down the astronomical drug prices we pay in the U.S.

"Oh my goodness," she said. "It's ridiculous, some of the prices. I am horrified."
Doggett said as it is now, buying prescription drugs from other countries is technically illegal, but he understands why so many Americans are doing it. He said he will continue pushing the issue any time he has the chance, in order to keep the issue top of mind for other lawmakers.

In the meantime, there are several companies that offer prescription discounts and coupons. We've gathered a list of helpful websites to help you save money on your prescription medications.