Consumers face surging costs for skin care drugs

WASHINGTON - The soaring cost of prescription drugs for treating skin conditions is enough to give you hives.

Since 2009, prices for brand-name dermatologic medications has surged 401 percent, according to a study published in the medical journal JAMA Dermatology. That compares to an overall inflation rate of just 11 percent during the same period.

Of the 19 brand-name drugs analyzed, price hikes have been most extreme for two drugs made by Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX), which has been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors for documents tied to its pricing and practices. It is also under investigation by several members of Congress. The Canada-based company focuses on acquiring smaller drug developers and then raising medicine prices.

Costs for Valeant's Targretin gel skin cancer treatment have shot up 18-fold over the past six years to $30,320 per 60 gram tube. Prices for a separate Valeant skin cancer cream, Carac cream, also surged 18 times to $2,865 for a 30 gram tube.

But the study found that dramatic price hikes are common across the pharmaceutical industry. Prices for generic skin treatment drugs climbed 279 percent between 2011 and 2014. Health insurers increasingly pass those costs onto patients, as health plans have limited coverage options, the study noted.

A report published in May by the pharmacy-benefits company Express Scripts found that 576,000 Americans spent at least $50,000 on prescription drugs in 2014, a sum roughly equivalent to the U.S. median household income. The number of people paying in excess of $50,000 a year had increased 63 percent from 2013.

The analysis by Dr. Steven Rosenberg, a dermatologist, and his daughter, Miranda Rosenberg, a third-year medical student at the University Pennsylvania, did not identify a source of the higher drug costs. But the expense of development and marketing of drugs, along with profit-taking and a dependent customer base all appear to have contributed to the broader increase in drug prices.

Among developed countries around the world, Americans pay the most for prescription drugs, the researchers said. In 2014, 19 percent of U.S. consumers between the ages of 19 and 64 were unable to fill at least one prescription because of the cost.

"As health insurance programs become more restrictive with their formularies or promote policies with high deductibles, patients are increasingly being forced to pay retail prices out of pocket for the drugs that will help them most," the researchers said in the study.

Another factor driving up drug prices is pharmaceutical industry consolidation, they suggest, noting that mergers and acquisitions allow firms to "corner" drug markets.