Heather Block was managing aid projects for the State Department and the United Nations in Afghanistan when she found a lump in her breast. Following a mastectomy and chemotherapy, she was on the road to recovery. Then, a year after her oncologist pronounced her cured, the cancer returned, and this time to her liver. After she underwent a brutal liver resection to remove the cancer, doctors discovered that it had spread to her lungs.
Stage 4 cancer with no cure — her oncologist told her that half of women survive two years and only 20 percent last five years. Four and a half years later, Heather — now 53 and living in Lewes, Del. — appears to be beating the odds, surviving on costly drugs.
According to a recent story on the AARP website by Jo Ann Jenkins, AARP CEO, Medicare pays approximately $2,000 for Block’s monthly prescription drug treatment. But because it is billed through Medicare Part B, which does not have an out-of-pocket maximum, she is responsible for 20 percent of the cost of every cancer drug she takes, more than $400 a month — and the costs keep rising at alarming rates.
Like Block, millions of Americans struggle with the high cost of prescription drugs. AARP’s most recent look at prescription drug prices, “2015 Survey on Prescription Drugs,” found that 3 of 4 adults age 50-plus regularly take at least one prescription medication, and over 8 in 10 take at least two drugs. More than half of seniors take four or more drugs.
Drug manufacturer price increases play a huge role in the high cost of prescription drugs. Prices for widely used brand-name and specialty drugs, such as those used to treat cancer, multiple sclerosis and rare diseases, rose the most, increasing by more than 10 percent on average in 2013. The average annual cost for a specialty drug in 2013 was $53,384, roughly 18 times the average cost for a brand-name drug ($2,960) and 189 times the average annual price for a generic drug ($283). There are also some generic drugs with extraordinary price increases.
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