Spike in generic drug prices leaving some with bad options

WALTHAM, Mass. — Generic drugs once made 'following doctor's orders' financially bearable for Jeannette Bowlby.

Now, that is not always the case.

Recently Bowlby - who is from Waltham - experienced sticker shock at the pharmacy, when the price of one of her generic prescriptions rose from $5 to $30 in one month.

"To have to spend that much on one prescription, when you're getting several... that hurts," Bowlby said.

That pain is forcing Bowlby to make painful decisions, such as cutting tablets in half to make the prescription last longer.

"Better half a pill than no pill," Bowlby said. "I know that's not the right answer. But that's how it is. Better to split them and have half of them than not be able to afford any."

Bowlby is not the only one trying to figure out how to get needed medications without going broke.

"The sad truth is that's almost become trite," said Mike Festa, state director of the AARP. "You know, we cut our pill in half. But that is, in fact, what is going on."

And in some cases, Festa said, older people are skipping their medications entirely.

"Many seniors have been in that place where they go down to the (drug store) and being asked to come up with $20 is, in the back of their minds, the reason they can't go down to the (drug store) and they don't," said Festa.

Festa suggested the prevalence of pharmaceutical non-compliance, for financial reasons, may be especially high in Massachusetts, where AARP found about two-thirds of state residents over the age of sixty are "economically insecure."

"The amount of money they're getting, through social security or a combination of others, is less than the amount they need for basic living," Festa said.

Rising drug prices have been an issue for years.

Particularly troubling, though, is the fairly recent rise in generic drug prices -- because, as Festa points out, generics were formerly considered a "refuge" from high health care costs. While generics are still less expensive than brand names -- they aren't always cheap, especially for those on fixed incomes.

"And you really look at everything a second time and say 'how much do I need this one... how much do I need that one?'" Bowlby said of her prescriptions.

Market forces are, in part, responsible for the rise in generic drug prices, said Todd Brown, pharmacy instructor at Northeastern University. "Some of the price increases are due to generic companies that have decided not to make a product," Brown said. "So all of the sudden when there's a shortage... you know the price will skyrocket."

Other factors which could contribute to spiking prices include a shortage of raw materials and production issues at pharmaceutical plants, Brown said.

"Economists who may look at the number of generics on the market and average cost of generics they'll still say generics save money," Brown said. "But when you get these individual cases where a product goes from $2 to $200 it's hard to see how that's not going to influence the system."

Attorneys general in 45 states, including Massachusetts, say it's generic drug makers influencing the system -- illegally.

A pending lawsuit against nearly 20 generic drug manufacturers claims the companies conspired to inflate prices and split market share on at least 15 generic drugs, including doxycycline, nystatin, meprobamate and theophylline.

As for Jeannette Bowlby, she's still smarting over that five-dollar prescription that suddenly shot up to $30 in one month.

"That's a lot of money," Bowlby said. "And when you're a senior citizen the money doesn't come easy."

Bowlby suggests that if prices continue to rise -- and she's unable to find cheaper pharmaceutical options -- the tough decisions may have to go beyond splitting pills.

"If it comes down to a decision of trying to buy something like milk... or trying to buy your prescription, you have to think how much do you really need this prescription. Because you know you need the milk."