Rural Spotlight

Making Prescription Drugs More Affordable for Rural Americans

In the United States, one in four Americans struggle to afford prescription medications.

Prescription drug affordability causes the most problems for the elderly, the sick and the lower-income population. Three in ten 50-64 year olds report problems affording medicines. Over 7.5 million seniors cannot afford their prescriptions. For people in rural America, the problem of prescription drug affordability is compounded by higher rates of poverty, lack of health coverage and transportation challenges.

The source of the affordability problem is that drug corporations in the United States have virtually unfettered monopoly power through exclusive patents that enable them to set high launch prices and to raise their prices whenever they want. A recent study shows that Americans pay over two and half times more for prescription medicines than people in other countries. Since 2014, drug prices have risen 44%—they are now the fastest growing cost of any medical good or service. In 2019 alone, drug corporations raised prices on over 3400 drugs, hiking prices five times the rate of inflation. Prescription drug companies are now the most profitable of any industry in America.

Meanwhile, Barbara Lawson, a senior living in Hollis, Maine, struggles to afford over $1,000 in medications a month on her fixed income to treat her rare auto-immune disorder. Barbara’s Medicare insurance helps pay part of the cost, but even with the insurance, they are still expensive for a senior on a fixed income. And prices keep going up. Every year, drug corporations increase their prices on thousands of common medicines, forcing millions of people to choose between paying for the medications they need or paying for other essentials. Barbara worries that she could soon be among them.

Healthier Colorado, a group who organizes for better, more affordable health care in rural Colorado, says that the consequences of rising prescription drug costs are clear: “25 percent of patients with diabetes are choosing to ‘self-ration’ their medication because of cost, which can result in life-threatening conditions, such as blindness, kidney failure, loss of limbs, and even death. And uninsured Americans are three times as likely as adults with private coverage to postpone or skip a prescription because they can’t afford it,” the group explains.

Rural Policy Summit participants, including Healthier Colorado and Lower Drug Prices Now, say that the path to reducing prescription drug prices is clear. Lawmakers can take action to stop drug corporation price-gouging that forces millions to choose between prescriptions and other basics like food and rent. They can enforce existing federal laws like Bayh-Dole “march-in” rights that break up monopoly power, increase competition and make some medicines more accessible. There are also a variety of legislative proposals that could create more sweeping remedies including:

  • H.3. The Lower Drug Costs Act that would finally require drug corporations to negotiate prices with Medicare for hundreds of medicines and then would extend those lower prices to people with private insurance.
  • The Pandemic Treatment Access and Affordability Act (PTAA) which would prohibit monopoly patents on COVID vaccines and treatments created with taxpayer funding, require reasonable pricing for those medicines and would increase transparency on government contracts with pharmaceutical companies.
  • The Protect American Investment in Drugs (WE PAID) Act would ensure that the prices of drugs developed using federally funded research (like NIH or CDC grants) are set at reasonable levels. Taxpayers fund most of the research and development of new drugs, yet those same taxpayers are struggling to afford drugs as companies set unaffordable prices and gouge patients by hiking prices year after year.