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Mass. Residents Want Government Action On High Drug Prices

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Massachusetts is a relatively affluent state with near universal health insurance coverage. But even here, a new WBUR poll finds that a large majority of Massachusetts residents say the cost of prescription drugs is too high, and most place the blame squarely on the shoulders of pharmaceutical companies and health insurers.

Three-quarters of residents (76%) call the cost of prescription drugs unreasonable. Another two-thirds (67%) call drug costs a “major problem” with Massachusetts’ health care system, second only to the high cost of health insurance. And nearly as many (61%) hold an unfavorable opinion of pharmaceutical companies.

Further, fully 92% say drug companies trying to maximize profits contributes “a great deal” or “a fair amount” to the cost of prescription drugs, while another 81% say the same of deals between insurance and drugs companies that keep prices high.

These two factors are the most cited reasons for the high costs of prescription drugs, suggesting a deep sense of mistrust toward pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

It seems that when it comes to drug prices, the sense of unfairly high prices or predatory practices extends beyond one’s own pocketbook.

This negativity is especially pointed in a state largely hailed as a leader in health care. Boston and Cambridge are in the midst of a booming biotech industry, Attorney General Maura Healey is suing one of the richest pharmaceutical families on behalf of the state, and health insurance coverage here is nearly universal.

Census estimates put the insured rate at 97.5%, while 83% of respondents in this survey say their insurance plan helps pay for prescription drugs.

And while cost is a major concern overall, two-thirds of those on medication (68%) say it is easy for them personally to pay for their prescription drugs, and 60% pay less than $50 a month.

(Courtesy of the MassINC Polling Group)
(Courtesy of the MassINC Polling Group)

It seems that when it comes to drug prices, the sense of unfairly high prices or predatory practices extends beyond one’s own pocketbook. Residents here are concerned for the overall affordability and sustainability of health care prices, whether or not they are personally feeling the pinch.

The remaining 31%, for whom paying for medicine is difficult, are even more concerned about the issue writ large. Fully 86% of these residents call the cost of prescription drugs a “major problem” with Massachusetts’ health care system. And while they are more likely to see a host of contributing factors to the high cost of drugs, the sense that drug companies try to maximize profits and cut deals with insurance companies to keep prices high especially stand out.

Residents having difficulty paying for drugs are more likely to be older, less educated, and live in lower-income households, all factors that can contribute to sensitive monthly budgets.

Massachusetts may have some ability to intervene in these areas, but the levers that would have the biggest impact on drug prices remain with the federal government. 

Residents see a role for government regulation in addressing the problem. First and foremost, 60% say making it easier for lower cost generic drugs to get approval would contribute a “great deal” in reducing the cost of prescription drugs.

Another 49% say allowing the government to negotiate with drug companies for better prices for people with Medicare and Medicaid would go a long way toward controlling prices. And 40% think allowing the government to limit what it has to pay for prescription drugs would help a “great deal.”

Massachusetts may have some ability to intervene in these areas, but the levers that would have the biggest impact on drug prices remain with the federal government.

Residents are also willing to look beyond our borders for relief. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of residents in the poll say that people in the U.S. pay higher prices for prescription drugs than those in other developed countries. And 44% say making it legal for consumers to purchase prescription drugs from Canada or Mexico would help a “great deal” to bring down drug prices.

Massachusetts is frequently named among the best states in the nation for health care, and deservedly so. But despite near-universal insurance coverage, roughly a third of those who take prescription drugs are having difficulty affording their medication. This new poll shows that residents are pointing the finger at those who are profiting — drug and insurance companies — and want government to rein in excessive drug costs.


Steve Koczela is the president of The MassINC Polling Group. He has overseen WBUR's polling since it began in 2011, and writes regularly for WBUR. 

Maeve Duggan is research director at the MassINC Polling Group and a contributor to WBUR. She tweets @maeveyd.

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