Why do we pay so much for prescription drugs?

Some go outside U.S. for lower prescription prices

HOUSTON – (KPRC) 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.

10 places to find prescription drug discounts

Prescription saving websites are often places where you can find cheaper prices for certain medications.

Most cannot be used when combined with insurance, but we found some prices even cheaper by just going through the website and not even using your insurance.
Good RX: Allows you to compare prices on prescription drugs, and print coupons. The site says it can save you 80 percent on drug prices.
Family Wize: Here, you can get a prescription discount card that allows you to shop for medications from pharmacy to pharmacy and choose the best prices.
Blink Health: The site says it has savings of up to 95 percent on more than 15,000 medications. You can pay for medication with an app or online and pick it up from a select pharmacy.
Refill Wise: This works with major retail pharmacies to bring cheaper prices for consumers. This pharmacy discount card allows you to collect points and earn cash rewards.
Discount Drug Network: Your free membership card helps find lower medication prices. The site can also find cheaper rates on pet prescriptions, for no extra fee.
EDrug Search: This allows you to search drug prices and print out free Rx coupons on most top-selling medications.
Internet Drug Coupons: You can search for specific coupons or sign up for a free prescription discount card.
Needy Meds: This gathers together coupons and discount codes for medication. The site also helps with buying necessary medical supplies that you might need.
Health Warehouse: This company is an actual online pharmacy. You can order medication at a discount and have it delivered to your home. Health Warehouse offers over-the-counter medications, too.
Refund Sweepers: This website gathers printable coupons for everything from baby items to groceries. It's also a good resource to many prescription drug discount companies.

While these individual companies promise to help you find discounts on drugs, we found you can often look to the main website of the specific drug and find discounts there, too. For example, Synthroid is a widely used thyroid hormone drug. We checked out the manufacturer website Synthroid.com and found printable coupons right on the front page.

This is another option to check when researching medication prices.