Are US Prescription Drug Prices 10 Times Those of Other Nations? Only Sometimes

by | May 19, 2023 | Health

“We pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, in some cases 10 times more than the people of any other country.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in an April 30, 2023, interview on CNN’s “State of the Union”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whether in Congress or as a presidential candidate, has always taken strong positions against the high cost of prescription drugs. Since becoming the chair of the influential Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this year, he’s made lowering drug costs a top priority.

It’s therefore not surprising that the senator would, during a recent Sunday morning TV interview, rail against high drug prices in the United States and compare what Americans pay with what people in other countries must fork over.

“We pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, in some cases 10 times more than the people of any other country,” Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union” last month.

After all, it is a popular political talking point. But 10 times as much? That was a bit of a head-snapper. We decided to check it out.

A Complicated Market

We first asked the senator’s office for the documents to support Sanders’ claims. But our repeated requests went unacknowledged.

So, we started digging around on our own. What we found was that, as expected, Sanders was right in asserting that drug prices in the United States generally exceed those in other countries. The magnitude of the difference, however, varies depending on the drugs and the countries included in the comparison, among other factors.

And no matter how the studies we examined sliced the data, the drug price difference almost never reached Sanders’ stated level. Still, experts told us his point has merit. “I think the quote is on target, if a bit vague in scope,” said Andrew Mulcahy, a senior health economist at the Rand Corp., a global policy think tank.

Take, for example, the oft-cited 2021 study by Rand that found, based on 2018 figures, drug prices in the U.S. were on average 2.56 times the drug prices in 32 other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. These are mostly high-income, developed nations. For brand-name drugs, the gap was even bigger: Americans paid 3.44 times the prices for those drugs, on average. But the opposite was true for generic drugs, for which Americans paid just 84% of what people in other countries studied paid. One exception: Turkey. U.S. drug prices were nearly eight times those in Turkey overall, and 10.5 times those for brand-name drugs.

Mulcahy, a co-author of the report, said that although the ratio across all drugs typically doesn’t reach Sanders’ “10 times” mark, “for some drugs it gets close, if you look at the manufacturer’s list price.”

The manufacturer price, though, is not necessarily the best measure — especially if the idea is to capture what consumers are paying.

That’s …

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