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Home Food and Health STUDY: How TV news ignores the prescription drug price problem

STUDY: How TV news ignores the prescription drug price problem

A Media Matters review of weekday evening news coverage reveals the evening programs largely ignored the problem of escalating prescription drug prices.

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Image credit: Chris Potter/Flickr
SOURCEMedia Matters for America

Democrats introduced a new bill to fight escalating prescription drug costs in the U.S.

The Hill: Sanders First Introduced Amendment Allowing Prescription Imports Last December. The Hill reported on December 6 that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had introduced an amendment to the 21st Century Cures Act that would have allowed prescription drug imports from other countries while also allowing Medicare to negotiate directly with drug companies for lower prices. Republicans in the Senate blocked the amendment, which Sanders framed as a way to fulfill then President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to help lower drug prices. [The Hill, 12/6/16]

Wash. Post: Democrats Introduced A Bill “To Allow Commercial Importation Of Drugs From Canada.” The Washington Post reported last month that Sanders “and a slew of Democratic colleagues” introduced a prescription drug bill in the Senate “to allow commercial importation of drugs from Canada,” where they often cost substantially less than American pharmaceuticals do. The article noted that “through cheap imported drugs, the United States would be able to take advantage of the government levers and regulation that other countries have used to bring down pharmaceutical prices.” From the February 28 article:

Opening a new front in the war against big pharma, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a slew of Democratic colleagues introduced a bill Tuesday to allow commercial importation of drugs from Canada.

The appeal is obvious; through cheap imported drugs, the United States would be able to take advantage of the government levers and regulation that other countries have used to bring down pharmaceutical prices. It’s a far more politically palatable way to attack the problem of soaring drug prices than opening up an even more contentious fight over whether the U.S. government should meddle directly in pricing – and it has had wide popular and bipartisan support, including from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the presidential campaign.

[…]

In an afternoon news conference unveiling the bill, Democratic and independent lawmakers threw down the gauntlet, calling on President Trump – who has repeatedly said that he will do something to rein in rising drug prices – to support their effort.

“I want to finally say about our president, who has said a lot of talk about health care and has recently confessed how ‘complicated’ he thinks it is. He has made promises to the American people about prescription drug prices; he has made promises to the American people, and now it’s time for him to put up or shut up,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who joined as a co-sponsor after voting against drug importation when it was an amendment. “It’s time for him to join with us, or, in my opinion, to confess his lies to the American people.” [The Washington Post, 2/28/17]

Broadcast evening news has devoted scant coverage to the prescription drug price problem

CBS and ABC Failed To Discuss Prescription Drug Prices While NBC Addressed It Once. A Media Matters review of broadcast news transcripts since Sanders introduced his December amendment to allow prescription drug imports revealed no segments during ABC’s World News Tonight or CBS’s Evening News that substantively addressed escalating prescription drug prices in the U.S. A single segment on NBC’s Nightly News covered the dramatic hike in EpiPen costs after the manufacturer was accused of predatory price gouging last September.

PBS Devoted Only Two Segments To Discussing Prescription Drug Prices. PBS NewsHour discussed drug prices in two segments – an interview with former Vice President Joe Biden and a segment discussing the impact of the 21st Century Medical Cures bill.

Cable news also devoted minimal coverage to the prescription drug price problem

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MSNBC Led The Way, Devoting Six Segments To Prescription Drug Prices. MSNBC led the way among both broadcast and cable outlets, devoting six segments to prescription drug prices. CNN and Fox each mentioned drug prices in only four segments.

Prescription drug prices continue to escalate in the U.S.

The Economist: “Drug Companies Continue To Charge Exorbitant Prices In America.” The Economist has reported on the trend of escalating prescription drug prices in the United States, explaining that “drug companies continue to charge exorbitant prices” because “in America companies set whatever official price they like.” As opposed to Europe, where “governments control prices in various ways,” the U.S. lacks formal price controls; instead, “insurers and the government” negotiate prices “using methods that vary from one type of patient to the next.” From the September 12 article:

“DRUGS have been marketed at such extraordinarily high prices that many people will simply not be able to afford them,” wrote a top cancer doctor in a scathing editorial in the Washington Post. That was in 2004. More than a decade later, the cost of drugs in America is still soaring – the most recent uproar was sparked by the price of Mylan’s EpiPen allergy medicine, which has jumped by about 600% since 2007. Despite the furore, drug companies continue to charge exorbitant prices in America. Why?

The simple answer is because they can. European governments control prices in various ways – Britain has the strictest system, refusing to pay for medicines that fail to meet a threshold of cost-effectiveness. But in America companies set whatever official price they like. Insurers and the government then whittle down that price using methods that vary from one type of patient to the next. (Like so much of American health care, this system is hard to understand, to the delight of the firms that profit from it.) Private customers – usually employers – hire third parties to negotiate discounts. Medicaid, the government’s programme for the poor, receives a mandated discount. But drug firms’ single biggest customer is Medicare, which in 2014 spent $112 billion on medicines for the old.

Rather than lower prices, rules for Medicare help raise them. Medicare rewards doctors for prescribing costly intravenous drugs – medicines that can account for up to 30% of an oncologist’s revenue. Medicare’s rules for pills, inhalers and so on are equally nonsensical. And it is illegal for Medicare to negotiate with drug companies. Private insurers do so instead, but the government binds their hands, for example by requiring them to pay for six broad categories of drugs, without exception. This suits pharmaceutical firms. Their biggest client is required to buy their products and prohibited from negotiating the price. These high prices support innovation, they argue – not just for America, but for the world. But it is unclear if firms’ profits need be so high to sustain research. [The Economist, 9/12/16]

Time: “Double-Digit Drug Price Increases Have Taken Place In Each Of The Past Three Years,” And 20 Percent Of Americans Have Reported Skipping Medication “Because The Drugs Are So Expensive.”Time magazine business writer Brad Tuttle examined the prescription price problem in June, listing a series of statistics about the increase in prescription drug prices over time. He noted that “double-digit drug price increases have taken place in each of the past three years,” and that “16.7% of all U.S. health care spending in 2015 went to prescription drugs, compared to roughly 7% in the 1990s.” Furthermore, “20% of Americans who take prescription drugs report that they or a family member have skipped them or cut them in half because the drugs are so expensive.” From the June 22 article:

Double-digit drug price increases have taken place in each of the past three years, including average rises of 12.6% in 2014 and over 10% last year.

Prices increased at eight times the rate of inflation for 30 prescription drugs analyzed by the Wall Street Journal, with an average price hike of 76% from 2010 to 2014.

Prices increased at eight times the rate of inflation for 30 prescription drugs analyzed by the Wall Street Journal, with an average price hike of 76% from 2010 to 2014.

16.7% of all U.S. health care spending in 2015 went to prescription drugs, compared to roughly 7% in the 1990s.

The average annual retail price of drugs was over $11,000 in 2013 for a patient who has prescriptions for a chronic illness, according to a AARP report. That total was “almost three-quarters of the average Social Security retirement benefit ($15,526),” and nearly half the median income of someone on Medicare ($23,500).

[…]

Prescription drug spending hit $425 billion in the U.S. last year, before discounting, and the total is expected to reach $640 billion by 2020, according to data from IMS Health Incorporated.

The average American worker paid $1,318 out of pocket in medical expenses (including prescriptions) before their health insurance providers began covering part of the bills. That’s up from an average deductible of $584 a decade ago for Americans with employer-sponsored health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

20% of Americans who take prescription drugs report that they or a family member have skipped them or cut them in half because the drugs are so expensive. [Time, 6/22/16]

Methodology

Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts of weekday evening news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS and weekday evening news programming (defined as 6 p.m. through 11 p.m.) on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC from December 6, 2016, through March 10, 2017. We searched ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’ Evening News, NBC’s Nightly News, and PBS’ Newshour, as well as CNN’s Situation Room, Outfront, Anderson Cooper 360, and CNN Tonight, Fox News’ Special Report, First 100 Days, Tucker Carlson Tonight, The O’Reilly Factor, and Hannity, and MSNBC’s For The Record, Hardball, All In, Rachel Maddow, and Last Word. The shows were searched for mentions of the word “drug” or “prescription” within five words of “price,” or “cost,” or “import,” as well as for the phrase “prescription drug.” We identified and reviewed all segments in which prescription drug prices were the stated and engaged upon topic of the report, or prescription drug prices were discussed substantively by one or more speaker(s) in the segment (for example, a guest brought up the topic spontaneously or a host asking a question about prescription drug prices to a guest and the guest responding during a multitopic interview would count). We did not include prime-time events like town halls and public debates.

Tell Congress to regulate prescription drug prices:




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