The Cost of Medicine in the U.S. is Costing People Their Lives

High Cost of Healthcare

It is no secret that the United States has the highest prescription drug prices in the world. This country has been hiking prices for more than a decade already and it doesn’t seem like it will stop anytime soon. The cost of prescription drugs here has become a crisis in itself. Unfortunately, this is costing many people their lives. 

In comparison to the rest of the world, the United States places outrageous prices on their medicines. This has continuously become apparent whenever I’ve traveled outside of the United States. Not so long ago, I visited my home town, Medellin, Colombia, and I took it upon myself to speak to a general doctor, Dr. Rafael* about the cost of medicines in Colombia. 

During our conversation, I was able to ask him the prices of some of the more popular prescription drugs. Dr. Rafael* confirmed shockingly low prices in comparison to what I’m used to seeing the states. I chose to ask about a variety of medicines. Below you’ll find the prices from both the United States and Colombia and you’ll be able to notice the price difference immediately.

Prescription Drug Cost in the United States Cost in Colombia (converted to USD)
Symbicort Inhaler $255 $37
Spiriva Inhaler $286 $27
Lipitor  10 mg $165 $10
Atorvastatin (generic of Lipitor) $14 $3
Pravastatin (generic of Pravachol) $29 $10

U.S. drug prices verified at drugs.com and everydayhealth.com

The prescription drugs listed are those that tackle asthma, lung disease, and heart-related issues. The reason I chose to ask about these specific types of medicines is because they are extremely prevalent within the Latinx community, our community. 

Asthma is a condition in which your airways constrict, which causes the person to produce extra mucus. It’s usually treatable, but it can also be deadly if it’s not taken care of appropriately. As always, we are always at a greater risk. 

Hispanic Healthcare cost
Photo credit medicalexpress.com

According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, hispanics are twice as likely to visit the emergency room due to an asthma incident, as compared to non-hispanics. Also, are you Puerto Rican or know anyone who is Puerto Rican? I’m asking because out of all our hispanic population, Puerto Ricans have the highest chance of being asthmatic. But this isn’t the most shocking piece of information I found. What worries me the most is that asthma-related deaths are twice as likely in Hispanic children in comparison to non-Hispanic children. This discovery completely broke my heart. It’s a sad reality, especially since the price of prescription drugs is an issue as well.

How is it that it costs about $255 for a medicine that is supposed to alleviate the discomfort of asthma? There are other brands that can treat asthma, but the stark reality lies within the cost. Even with insurance, the cost of asthma medication is astronomical compared to other countries in the world, including Colombia.

Another type of medicine I asked about was the Spiriva Inhaler. Spiriva is an inhaler that can help individuals treat COPD. COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is an umbrella term that encompasses various lung diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory asthma. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States and that includes deaths among the Hispanic-American population. This is troublesome, especially when we take into account how expensive one of the medicines used to treat this disease is. Of course, I understand that is the cost of medicine without insurance, but let’s not forget that not everyone is insured. In actuality, Hispanics are among the most uninsured group in the United States. More specifically, about 16 percent of the Hispanic population is uninsured. That’s roughly around nine million people in our community who have to pay out-of-pocket fees for their medicine. Imagine that. 

This disease usually affects older patients, though rare, it can also appear in younger patients depending on their living conditions. As you can see in the price chart, the price for this medication is also incredibly high. This one is even more impactful because this medicine should be simple between breathing comfortably, but it’s not. Again, Colombia wins this price round by charging $27 for the same exact medicine. 

Now, let’s talk about the number one killer in the United States — cardiovascular disease. Yes, you read that right. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of mortality in the United States. Cardiovascular Disease or CVD can be an array of heart-related issues such as Coronary Heart Disease (CHD), stroke, and High Blood Pressure (HBP). Sounds scary, right? Well, it scares me, especially knowing that our community is prone to CVD. 

BeLatina health harvard edu
Photo Credit health.harvard.edu

The American Heart Association states that Hispanics older than 20 years of age have CVD, with men at 48.3% and women at 32.4%. If you ask me, that’s too many of us. 

The last three medicines I present in my chart are all to treat high blood pressure and triglycerides levels. If you notice, Colombia keeps beating the United States at drug prices. Sure, getting the generic versions doesn’t seem to be too expensive, but why can’t the United States honor those prices to Americans as well?

I do want to emphasize that Colombia is not the only country in the world with cheaper prescription drugs. The truth is that many countries in the world offer more affordable medicine. I just find it so mind-boggling that the United States is the outlier in this.

With that said, this issue is not only affecting the prescriptions I inquired about during my trip to Colombia, it’s affecting many others as well. I could give you a long list, but for now, I just want to touch base on insulin for a bit. 

Seventeen percent of the Latinx community in the United States have been diagnosed with diabetes and many of them are insulin-dependent. That means that their lives depend on insulin, otherwise, they risk the possibility of not seeing another tomorrow. Sadly, not everyone can afford insulin. In other words, it seems like not everyone can afford to stay alive and this is all due to the cost. 

In 1996, one common type of insulin would cost $21, but it is now at about $295. That is roughly a 700 percent increase in price! Keep in mind that diabetics need between 1 to 3 vials A MONTH to stay healthy. That’s easily someone’s rent money, which is one of the reasons why people are dying from their diabetes diagnostic.

Cost Healthcare Belatina
Photo Credit everydayhealth.com

In this situation, I want to highlight Mexico. It costs only $600 for a three month supply of insulin rather than the $3,700 that it would cost a diabetic in the United States. Can you spot the injustice?

Since people have realized that medicine is cheaper outside of the United States, many have resorted to buying them from other countries. For the most part, importing medicine from other countries is illegal, but states like Utah have started tackling this crisis. Utah now sends public employees to Mexico to pick up prescription drugs that way their residents can save money and stay alive. For the rest of the United States, the FDC suggests checking their list of accepted personal items into the United States. Some medicine is permitted, you just have to verify with them.

However, this doesn’t stop people from still trying to bring medicine illegal or even worse, buy medicine, such as insulin in the black market. People who have extra vials just sell them to other people in need, especially those who can’t afford retail price. It’s sad that a black market has been created for a life-saving drug. People are also creating GoFundMe’s to try to afford their medications, but even that’s not always enough. 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, some diabetics are taking even more drastic measures to preserve their health…or better yet — risk their lives. 

Believe or not, desperate diabetics have started to take lower dosages to make their supply last longer because they struggled to afford life-saving medicine. Unfortunately, drug rationing doesn’t always have a positive outcome. It can cost people their lives and their families a lifetime of pain. 

Okay, but why is this happening? Why is insulin so expensive in the United States? Those have been my recurring thoughts as I bumped into more outrageous situations regarding medicine costs in the United States. During my research, I was made aware of this chart that tried to explain the reasoning behind insulin costs, but it doesn’t even make sense. 

Healthcare Cost Expensive
Photo Credit researchgate.net

Photo via researchgate.net

If you don’t understand this chart, you’re not alone. The complexity of this chart is synonymous with the system that drives medicine costs.  It is apparent to me and to many other Americans that the pharmaceutical industry is just composed of many sub-groups who refuse to take any accountability. 

Really, that’s what it seems like. Whenever we hear the reasoning of these inhumane prices, we get told it’s among Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBM), drug companies, insurance companies, or politicians. Seriously, who is responsible?

Some people, including politicians, say that PBM’s are the middleman and that they are the ones that finalize the prices. While PBM’s deny that they’re the middleman and claim that they’re only around for rebates and negotiated payments. According to PBM’s, they negotiate with organizations and nothing more. Then we have the drug companies. Though they have been in charge of creating their own reputation, they also claim that they’re not the ones with the final say on prescription drug prices. Insurance companies apparently only negotiate prices, so we can’t look their way. And as for the politicians. Well, they continue blaming everyone else but themselves. 

I promise you, if you go and look into this information, you’ll find contradicting information everywhere. 

The hard fact is that many people are dying because of this monopolized game. At this point, it feels more like a drug cartel rather than an industry trying to help people stay healthy and alive. Except that everything that the United States and the pharmaceutical industry is doing is completely legal. 

So, what can we do about this crisis?

For starters, we can try to lead a healthy life in order to avoid these complications. I know that there are a lot of factors that may dictate the possibility of a healthy life and not everyone has the same accessibility to a healthier life, but if you have the opportunity, please take care of yourself. The other thing we can do is to push Congress to do something about these prices. 

See, in order to modify the prices that Americans are getting for their medications, we have to try to break their patents. It sounds simple, but it’s not — as everything that has to do with the medical industry. There’s a process. Apparently, there is a grandfathered agreement among drug companies and anyone involved within the pharmaceutical industry that states that their prices can remain however they want as long as they don’t change their patents. They are allowed to alter some things around, but it was stipulated that as long as nothing is completely changed within the patents, then the way prices are determined will stay the same. This whole ordeal has been set up to be almost impossible to change around. All of this is just nauseating to me.

This is why we need congress. Congress is the only entity that is allowed to break any types of patents. The good news is that many politicians have made drug prescription costs a priority, especially since the 2020 elections are coming. 

At the moment, both the Democratic and the Republican party have drawn up negotiations to tackle the high costs of medications in the United States. So, who knows. People living in the United States may finally be able to afford their medications in the near future. 

As of now, it seems like Donald Trump is trying to ease the costs of prescription drugs while he’s in office. Just a few days ago he released a plan that would allow Americans to import prescription drugs from Canada.

It looks like we’re moving in the right direction. I just hope it speeds up for the sake of those currently struggling to stay alive.  

*name has been changed.