Under pressure, drugmakers reveal list prices online

Riley Griffin and Anna Edney
Drugmakers said its disclosures online show a commitment to patients, who may find the patchwork quilt of resources tough to navigate.

The world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies are revealing prices of their prescription drugs on websites for the first time in a bid to stave off pressure from the Trump administration to make even more public disclosures.

The move by companies ranging from pharma giant Pfizer Inc. to biotechnology pioneer Amgen Inc. comes almost a year after U.S. President Donald Trump suggested in a blueprint for lowering medical costs that the government might require drugmakers to put list prices in their TV advertisements.

When federal regulators officially proposed such a requirement in October, drugmakers protested. The industry’s main trade association said the rule would give patients watching TV the false impression that they’re required to pay the full price and that the ads would deter them from seeking treatment. The group also said the proposal would violate the First Amendment by compelling commercial speech.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America countered the proposal with its own guidance, urging members to redirect patients watching TV commercials to online pricing portals. It set a voluntary deadline of April 15.

Manufacturers like Pfizer and Amgen have created new digital hubs where patients can find pricing information for multiple drugs. Others, such as AbbVie Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Sanofi and AstraZeneca Plc, have added list prices to product-specific websites for top-selling drugs such as Humira, Eliquis, Toujeo and Symbicort.

For consumers, the patchwork quilt of resources might not be so easy to navigate and could lead to more confusion in the already byzantine world of drug pricing, according to health-care cost experts.

“If your aim is transparency, those prices need to be upfront and not require additional action from the patient,” said Connecture Senior Vice President Jim Yocum, who manages price-transparency tools for Medicare.gov. “When you click through a website, that scale and reach is diluted down to nothing. What other industry goes to this length to obscure what the price is?”

Eli Lilly & Co. was one of the first to begin sharing prices, airing television ads touting the website lillypricinginfo.com in early January.

“Prescription drug prices can be confusing,” states Lilly’s website, which features information on four drugs, including the breast cancer treatment Verzenio. Under private insurance, Verzenio will typically cost $50 per month, explains the site. With Medicaid, the price will range from $4 to $9. However, the uninsured can expect to pay the full list price, which comes to $11,732 per month.

“Providing the greater context on the website, where we can give list price but also expected out-of-pocket cost dependent on what kind of insurance you have, is much more meaningful to patients” than putting prices in TV ads, said Lilly spokesman Mark Taylor. The website generates thousands of hits per month, he said.

Bloomberg contacted more than 10 drugmakers about their new price-transparency initiatives. The companies said their efforts to disclose list prices and out-of-pocket costs online demonstrate a commitment to patients amid a high-profile, bipartisan push to tackle soaring health costs.

“It’s notable that rather than standing on the legal problems, the pharmaceutical companies have taken a constructive approach to find ways to present pricing information to consumers in a useful way,” said Jon Bigelow, executive director of the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, whose members include advertising trade groups.

But Yocum said Washington will see the websites as yet another set of hurdles keeping patients from fully understanding the cost of treatment. The White House and Congress will continue to press manufacturers to put list prices in TV ads, he predicted.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing the final rule that would require the list prices in TV commercials, a last step before the measure is made public and can go into effect.

“We need to let the regulatory process go through,” said Pfizer spokeswoman Sharon Castillo. “Now the ball is in the court of the administration.”

Johnathan Monroe, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, didn’t comment on the timing of the final rule or whether the drugmakers’ responses offered an adequate compromise.

The world’s largest maker of health-care products, Johnson & Johnson, went a step further than its peers in February to put list prices directly in TV ads, in addition to on websites, in a move that aligned the drugmaker with Trump’s blueprint.

“The data shows that consumers want simply presented information on what they can expect to pay,” said spokesman Ernie Knewitz. “It’s the right decision for us.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar commended J&J for putting prices in ads and pressed other pharmaceutical companies to follow suit. To date, none have.

Hospitals and health insurer lobby groups also backed the administration’s proposal, according to comments submitted to CMS.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents insurers in Washington, called drug prices “out of control” and supports disclosing list prices in TV ads.

“This will empower patients to have more informed conversations with their doctors about the best approach to improve their health and manage their medical conditions,” AHIP said in its comments to CMS.