PhotoAll of a sudden, health care policymakers, inside government and out, are taking a hard look at the high price of medication.

At a time when health care is more accessible, many consumers are finding the drugs that are being prescribed are prohibitively expensive. Even generic drugs, which are cheaper than their name brand equivalents, often aren't that much cheaper.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has prodded the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Inspector General to find out why generic drug costs have recently gone up.

“It is unacceptable that Americans pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” Sanders said. “Generic drugs were meant to help make medications affordable for millions of Americans who rely on prescriptions to manage their health needs. We’ve got to get to the bottom of these enormous price increases.”

Sanders says an analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid show 10% of generic drugs more than doubled in price in a recent year. He says drug companies were not cooperative when he asked them to turn over records on prices. Since federal law requires companies to give that data to HHS, he said he has appealed to that agency to shed some light on the issue.

Expensive arthritis drugs

A new study of Medicare coverage of a class of medication known as biologic disease modifying drugs (DMARDS) underscores the rising costs of many commonly-prescribed medications. The study found that one DMARD, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA), costs the typical Medicare recipient $2,700 out of pocket before catastrophic coverage kicks in.

For most DMARDs, the study found that consumers absorb nearly 30% of the cost during the initial phase of their treatment.

The study, published in the medical journal Arthritis & Rheumatology, says DMARDs have been a game-changer in the treatment of RA, a chronic autoimmune disease affecting 1.3 million Americans. Without this class of drugs, the authors say 1 in 3 RA patients are permanently disabled within 5 years of disease onset.

Treatment based on drug cost

"While specialty DMARDs have improved the lives of those with chronic diseases like RA, many patients face a growing and unacceptable financial burden for access to treatment," said Dr. Jinoos Yazdany with the Division of Rheumatology at the University of California, San Francisco and lead author of the present study. "Rather than determining which drug is best for the patient, we find ourselves making treatment decisions based on whether patients can afford drugs."

Even consumers sharply divided over the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, appear to be somewhat united on the issue of drug prices. When the Kaiser Family Foundation released a survey on Obamacare this week, it showed consumers pretty evenly divided on whether they approved of the new law, breaking down along partisan and ideological lines.

But when the survey touched on drug prices, there was surprising consensus.

When asked to choose their biggest health care priority, 76% said “making sure that high-cost drugs for chronic conditions, such as HIV, hepatitis, mental illness and cancer, are affordable to those who need them.” The 76% included strong majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

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