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Why are drug prices so high? And what can be done?

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A prescription pill bottle.
A prescription pill bottle.
John Moore | Getty Images file

Americans spend a lot on prescription drugs. What's behind the costs? And what can change?

MPR News host Kerri Miller talked with two experts on the high cost of drugs in the U.S.: Dr. Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Leigh Purvis, director of Health Services Research at the AARP Public Policy Institute.

For the full conversation, use the audio player above.

Dr. Patel offered her perspective on the high cost of pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Kavita Patel: Why are drug prices so high and what can we do about it?

Find Dr. Patel on Twitter @kavitapmd

Paying for drugs is an incredibly frustrating experience for many Americans, with higher out of pocket costs compromising care in some cases since some patients sacrifice filling a prescription simply due to cost.

In 2013, per capita spending on prescription drugs was $858 compared with an average of $400 for 19 other industrialized nations. In the United States, prescription medications now comprise an estimated 17 precent of overall personal health care services, growing each year.

Why do drugs cost so much?

Drug prices are influenced by many things — research costs, etc. — as well as the premiums paid to various stakeholders in the distribution chain including wholesale distributors, pharmacy benefit managers, pharmacies and insurance plans. Some researchers have suggested that up to 41 percent of costs might actually be attributed to intermediaries. 

In the end, the cost and prices in large part have to do with what people are willing to pay for or "what the market will allow." Efforts to try and have the U.S. government directly negotiate with pharmaceutical companies have been met with political resistance and so have administrative efforts to try and control drug pricing.

What can I do about high prices?

1) Talk to your doctor about lower cost options, including using generic medications.

2) Shop around at different pharmacies to look for better prices. Different insurance companies might have preferences, and have arranged for different prices with certain pharmacies.

3) Look into mail order options as well. Sometimes mail order can be cheaper.

Some practical resources, courtesy of AARP

Pharmaceutical companies often offer assistance programs to qualified individuals. Many organizations help connect patients to such programs, including NeedyMeds.org, the Partnership for Prescription Assistance and the Patient Advocate Foundation's National Financial Resource Directory.

Find a list of programs that work with Medicare Part D at medicare.gov.

Use the audio player above to hear the full segment.