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Why some generic drug prices are skyrocketing

NEW YORK - Barbara Heller has an autoimmune disease called PBC. She takes the generic drug Ursodiol to prevent liver damage.

"The last refill that I got for Ursodiol cost $94.50 for three months, Heller said.

In August, she called for her usual three-month renewal, expecting her cost would still be under $100.

Instead, it was $1,212.30.

"I was upset, I didn't know what to do," she said. "I need Ursodiol every day probably for the rest of my life. Cost can't be a factor in not getting it."

Some spectacular jumps in generic drug prices have been exposed in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Doxycycline, an antibiotic, went from $.06 a pill to$3.36, an increase of more than 5,000 percent. Captopril, used for hypertension, increased 2,800 percent.

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A recent analysis by Pembroke Consulting found nearly 10 percent of generics more than doubled in price in the past year.

Wednesday's article points to the impact of less competition in the generic drug industry. Fr example, over the last decade, the number of companies making the heart drug Digoxin fell from eight to three and the drug price went up by 637 percent.

Dr. Aaron Kesselheim of Brigham and Women's Hospital is one of the authors of the paper.

"Everybody just assumes generic prices are low but generic prices are low because there's competition," said Kesselheim. "And so once that competition goes away, you no longer have low prices and you have very expensive generic drugs."

After Heller and her husband did extensive research, they were able to find the Ursodiol at a discounted rate. But it was still more than three times what she had paid before.

The Generic Pharmaceutical Association points out that in 2013, generics saved the health care system $239 billion. The price hikes that threaten those kinds of savings are why a Senate subcommittee chaired by Bernie Sanders will hold a hearing next week.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook