LANSING — The extensive research needed for government approval of new prescription drugs in American laboratories comes at a premium that can pose a problem for senior citizens.
Angela Willis, director of the Department of Senior Citizen Services in Macomb County, attributes some of the rising costs of drugs to rigorous testing requirements.
Meanwhile, some health economists believe the price escalation is simply a case of supply and demand.
A report by the Government Accountability Office found that between 2004 and 2007, prescription drug costs rose 14 percent — outpacing inflation during that period. Willis said people who rely on pension or Social Security income often face a dilemma: Buy food or medicine?
When other expenses such as home maintenance and transportation are taken into account, Social Security sometimes isn’t enough, Willis said.
Of Macomb County’s 850,000 residents, about 134,000 are 65 or older, and many of them need prescription drugs.
“We make sure that a drug has been put through so many test levels,” Willis said. Americans have “always wanted the best. We never settle for mediocre. We have a lower death rate from cancer because we have better research. We like to live well.”
Testing is required for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In Livingston County, mounting economic pressures are forcing senior citizens to cut back on Meals on Wheels deliveries, said Christina Lovgren, director of the Livingston County Senior Nutrition Program. Instead of the typical five-day delivery cycle, some have to cut back to three days.
The program makes 1,200 meals a day, delivering them to senior centers and private homes in Livingston and western Oakland County.
“They can’t continue spending money for their meals. It’s a common thing and a terrible situation for seniors,” Lovgren said. “They’re so hard hit in their financial state. It’s very sad to have to make a choice like that, and it shouldn’t happen.”
Allen Goodman, an economics professor at Wayne State University, said companies have to continuously raise prices as demand increases. The government and drug companies should agree on a plan that reins in the costs of medicine, Goodman said.
“I think you have increased demand for these drugs,” Goodman said. “If the federal government could negotiate more aggressively with drug makers, it could get more favorable terms.”
Cancer and arthritis medications can cost as much as $1,500 a month, said Krystal May, prescription maintenance coordinator at the Alpena Senior Center.
May, a certified Medicare/Medicaid counselor, said she aids nearly 2,000 clients each year.
“The cost of medication is due to the fact that we’re the only country that does testing and monitors medicine,” May said. “There are a lot of medications that are very expensive.”
In Macomb County, residents can lessen the hit of drug costs by using a prescription discount card that saves them around 20 percent on each drug purchase. Unlike the state’s miRX program, which requires a certain income level, Macomb’s card is available to everyone in the county.
Willis estimates that between 12,000 and 18,000 families take advantage of the card each year.
“Cards give people the opportunity to get the lowest price,” Willis said. “I think there is always value to them.”
Using the generic equivalents of brand-name drugs whenever possible also can help offset price increases, Willis said. From 2000 to 2007, the prices of 44 brand-name drugs rose 48.6 percent, while costs of 43 generic drugs increased by 7 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Although the effectiveness is the same, consumers pay more for non-generics because of cosmetic differences, such as pill labeling, color or shape. The differences “are very slight,” Willis said. “There is no reason to pay more.”