Why Are MS Drugs So Expensive?

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Drugs designed to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) are a fairly recent innovation. The first injectable drug for MS was approved in 1993, and the first oral drug wasn't approved until 2010.

While these medications have improved the lives of many MS patients, they are also notorious for their shockingly steep prices. For some, the cost can be downright debilitating.

The question remains, why are MS drugs so expensive, and what can patients do to save their hard-earned money? Read on to find out.

What Drugs Are Available for MS?

Compared to the number of drugs available to treat other, more common progressive disorders (like arthritis, for example), there are relatively few medications available for the treatment of MS.

In some cases, steroids may be used to treat severe relapses of MS. However, steroids have a large number of known side effects and are not used for frequent or long-term treatment. Many steroids are relatively inexpensive.

In this article, we'll be discussing disease-modifying drugs (DMDs), which are medications specifically designed to target MS.

These types of drugs work to slow the progression of MS and its related disabilities, as well as to decrease the frequency and severity of relapses.

The three oral MS DMDs on the market are:

      Tecfidera (dimethyl fumarate)

      Gilenya (fingolimod)

      Aubagio (teriflunomide)

Injectable MS DMDs are more numerous, and include:

      Avonex (interferon beta-1a)

      Extavia (interferon beta-1b)

      Copaxone (glatiramer acetate)

      Plegridy (peginterferon beta-1a)

      Lemtrada (alemtuzumab)

      Novantrone (mitoxantrone hydrochloride)

      Tysabri (natalizumab)

      Ocrevus (ocrelizumab)

Unfortunately for patients, all DMDs for MS come with sky-high price tags. A study published in the journal JAMA Neurology found that the annual cost of self-administered MS drugs quadrupled in a single decade, rising from $18,660 in 2006 to $75,847 in 2016.

That amounts to a mean annual increase of 12.8 percent. For patients with Medicare Part D, this resulted in a 7.2-fold increase in out-of-pocket costs.

Why Are MS Drugs So Expensive?

So, why do MS drugs come at such a steep price? Some American politicians are asking the same question. In August 2017, representatives sent letters to major pharmaceutical companies requesting information about the skyrocketing costs of MS drugs.

Those representatives cited a study that found that annual sales of MS drugs doubled from $4 billion to almost $9 billion between 2008 and 2012.

Despite this, there has been no corresponding increase in the number of patients prescribed.

As a result, the cost of MS drugs now accounts for three-quarters of the cost of treating a patient with MS, while in 2004 it accounted for only half, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

What's the reason for such a dramatic increase? The simplest answer lies in a lack of generic medications.

The first two generic DMDs for MS were approved by the FDA as recently as 2017, but most MS drugs are not available in a generic form at the time of writing.

Another factor behind the cost of MS drugs lies in the U.S. government and its lack of central drug price regulation. While countries like Canada have a federal body that negotiates drug prices with manufacturers to control costs, the U.S. has no such system.

So, when selling drugs in the U.S., manufacturers are free to price their medications as high as possible without disclosing why.

This explains why manufacturers often raise drug prices in the U.S. arbitrarily, even when they have conducted no additional research and development on the drugs in question.

How Can I Reduce the Cost of My MS Drugs?

Although paying for MS drugs can be a challenge, patients have several options for reducing their expenses. 

These are six measures you can take to reduce the cost of your MS drugs:

  1. Use your existing insurance benefits. If you already have health insurance, spend the time to review your plan's benefits. This can help you identify any "preferred pharmacies," or pharmacies at which your insurance provider will offer lower copays. Also check to see if you have tiered copayment options, which can reduce the cost of certain medications.
  1. Ask your doctor about generic drugs. Although there are few generic versions of MS drugs, some do exist. Since generic drugs cost 85 percent less than their brand-name counterparts, it's certainly worth checking. 
  1. Look for manufacturer coupons. Many drug manufacturers offer coupons and pharmaceutical assistance programs to help patients pay for their products. For example, the maker of Tecfidera offers a $0 copay program for those who qualify, as does the maker of Betaseron. Click here for a database of drugs that offer such programs. 
  1. Take advantage of veteran discounts. If you're a veteran or a dependent as one, you likely qualify for government assistance with your MS drug costs. Click here for more information on prescription assistance from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. 
  1. Research Medicare prescription programs. Visit the Medicare website to learn about its prescription drug coverage. If you're on Medicare and have an annual income of less than $18,735 (or $25,365 for a married couple), you may qualify for the Extra Help program. 
  1. Look into State Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs (SPAPs). SPAPs are state-funded programs that offer financial prescription assistance to eligible patients. Click here to find out if your state offers such a program.

Another popular way patients lower MS drug costs is by purchasing their prescriptions from online pharmacies that import drugs from countries like Canada.

If you choose to buy your medications from an online pharmacy, just be sure to find a reputable one. Only do business with online pharmacies and pharmacy referral services that:

      Require a valid prescription.

      Don't allow the purchase of more than a three-month supply of any medication.

      Don't sell any controlled substances or narcotics.

      Only sell medications from licensed pharmacies and approved suppliers.

Once you find the right only pharmacy or pharmacy referral service, you'll be able to enjoy deep discounts on the same medications sold in the U.S.

For example, brand-name Tecfidera 120mg pills (14 count) from My Drug Center cost $383, or $27.36 each. By contrast, brand-name Tecfidera 120mg pills (14 count) from a U.S. pharmacy cost about $1,911, or $136.53 each.

It's undeniable that MS treatment can be excessively expensive. With the right strategies, though, you can significantly lower your drug costs, whether you choose to purchase from a trustworthy online pharmacy referral service like My Drug Center or seek out assistance from other sources.


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