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Prescription Drug Spending is Consuming a Bigger Share of Wages

July 4th, 2017 | Dean Baker

Prescription drugs are a large and growing share of national income. While it is generally recognized that drugs are expensive, many people are unaware of how large a share of their income goes to paying for drugs because much of it goes through third party payers, specifically insurance companies and the government.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) produce projections of national expenditures on prescription drugs through 2025, along with historical estimates dating back to 1960. As shown below, prescription drug spending from 1960 to 1980 was equivalent to about one percent of total wage and salary income. In the years leading up to the passage of the Bayh-Dole act in 1980, wage income was rising faster than spending on prescription drugs. As a result, the share of wages spent on prescription drugs was actually falling, reaching a low in 1979 of 0.86%.

However, after 1980, prescription drug spending rose rapidly relative to wage income. The ratio of drug spending to wages rose each year from 1980 to 2007. In 2007 wage growth finally outpaced drug expenditures, with the ratio again increasing in the Great Recession. By 2010, prescription drug spending had climbed above four percent of wage income.

The three percent of annual wage income lost to higher drug spending over the past 40 years makes a big difference to working individuals and families. This increase in annual spending averages out to roughly $2,400 per household. CMS projections, combined with projections on wage income growth from the Congressional Budget Office, suggest that spending on prescription drugs will increase further through 2025. This ratio is expected to exceed five percent by 2024.

While an aging population has been a factor increasing spending on drugs, demographics alone cannot explain the sharp increase in prescription drug spending. Inflation-adjusted prescription drug spending per household has increased more than eightfold since 1980, far outpacing any demographic trend surrounding age. The share of people over age 65 in the population has increased from 9.2% in 1960 to 14.8% in 2015. This can at most explain a small part of the increase in spending on drugs over this period.

It is important to recognize that the high cost of drugs is the result of a conscious policy decision to give drug companies monopolies in the form of patents and other forms of exclusive marketing rights. Without these protections drugs would almost invariably be cheap, likely costing on average less than one fifth as much as they do now. Even worse, the perverse incentives resulting from patent monopolies distort the research process and can lead drug companies to misrepresent evidence on the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.

 This blog was originally published at CEPR on June 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Authors: Dean Baker co-founded CEPR in 1999. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich RicherGetting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working PeopleThe End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets ProgressiveThe United States Since 1980Social Security: The Phony Crisis (with Mark Weisbrot), and The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. His blog, “Beat the Press,” provides commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan. Brian Dew holds a B.A. in Psychology and Organizational Sciences from the George Washington University and an M.A. in Economics from American University. His previous research has focused on international trade, network analysis, and open-economy macroeconomics, while his current research interests include domestic trade, employment, and monetary policies. Brian worked previously for the International Monetary Fund.

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