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Medical Progress Report
No. 3  November 2006

The Human Cost of Federal Price Negotiations:
The Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit and Pharmaceutical Innovation

Benjamin Zycher
Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

Executive Summary

The 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act created a prescription-drug benefit, Medicare Part D, effective January 1, 2006. For the first time, the federal government will pay for the prescription medicines used by American senior citizens. Part D differs from other federal and state drug programs, which mandate specific price discounts. Instead, private-sector Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) — including such well-established firms as Medco, Blue Cross, and Aetna — negotiate with drug companies to set prices and formularies (lists of covered drugs) for enrolled patients.

Because the prescription drug benefit is projected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade, some policymakers have called for changing Medicare Part D, to require federal negotiation of prescription-drug prices. Such a change would aim to use the purchasing power of the federal government to force prices below those that would be negotiated by the private sector.

In addition to cost reductions, however, this policy change portends other ancillary effects. In particular, this paper estimates the impact that federal negotiation of prescription drug prices would have on pharmaceutical research-and-development (R & D) investment through 2025. It argues that federal policymakers would have incentives to favor price reductions at the expense of more-inclusive drug formularies. This greater willingness of federal officials to exclude drugs from formularies would lower drug prices below those that otherwise would be set by the market. This, in turn, would reduce incentives for the capital market to invest in the research and development of new medicines.

This report quantifies the results of such a decline in capital investment. It presents the results of a simulation analysis that projects pharmaceutical R & D investment, assuming, under three different sets of parameters, federal price negotiations for prescription drugs beginning in 2007.

• In the baseline case, developed from National Science Foundation (NSF) data on historical investment trends, the cumulative decline in research and development investment would yield a loss of 196 new medicines, or about ten per year.

• Using the same NSF data with a more conservative assumption about the growth rate of research and development investment, the loss would be 107 new medicines, or about six per year.

• Using historical investment data gathered by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the loss would be 220 new medicines, or twelve per year.

In the short run, federal price negotiations would allow some consumers to receive medicines at lower prices, or, alternatively, would yield savings for federal taxpayers. The longer-term human costs of government price-negotiation, however, are likely to be large and adverse. This paper estimates that investment in new drug research and development would decline by approximately $10 billion per year. It estimates as well the effect of reduced pharmaceutical R & D investment on American life expectancies, or expected “life-years”. Specifically, this work projects that federal price negotiations would yield a loss of 5 million expected life-years annually, an adverse effect that can be valued conservatively at about $500 billion per year, an amount far in excess of total annual U.S. spending on pharmaceuticals.

About the Author

Benjamin Zycher, is a Senior Fellow at Manhattan Institute's Center for Medical Progress and a member of the advisory boards of the quarterly journal Regulation and Consumer Alert.

During the first two years of the Reagan Administration, Mr. Zycher was a senior staff economist at the President's Council of Economic Advisers. He is also a former senior economist at the RAND Corporation, a former vice president for research at the Milken Institute and a former member of the Board of Directors of the Western Economic Association International. Previously, he was an adjunct professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles and a former editor of the quarterly public policy journal Jobs & Capital. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California Los Angeles (1979) and a Master of Public Policy from the University of California Berkeley (1974).

Mr. Zycher's research focuses on the economic and political effects of regulation, government spending, taxation and counterterrorism public expenditures. He has done considerable work on health care policy and the economics of the pharmaceutical sector and on energy and environmental policy. Mr. Zycher has also examined long-term trends in economic performance and military capability, the use of trade policy in pursuit of foreign policy goals and measures of burdensharing within alliances. He is the author of "Defense Economics" and "OPEC" in The Concise Encyclopedia.


The 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act (MMA) substantially increased the medical benefits that the federal government finances for the elderly. Under Part D of the MMA, the federal government pays a significant portion of prescription drug costs of seniors covered by Medicare, beginning in 2006. Previously, only prescription medicines "incident to" the delivery of physician services had been covered as a Medicare benefit.

This benefit is not the only new provision of the MMA. Unlike previously existing federal and federal/state drug programs — such as those for veterans receiving drugs under Department of Veterans Affairs programs or Medicaid programs for low-income patients — the new Part D program does not attempt to reduce prices or spending by mandating specific price discounts from pharmaceutical producers. Indeed, the federal government under the MMA is proscribed from negotiating or imposing such discounts. Instead, such negotiations are left to private-sector insurers and other buyers — Pharmacy Benefit Managers, or PBMs — that negotiate with the pharmaceutical producers. The PBMs then offer Medicare enrollees choices of drug benefit plans, with differing premiums, drug prices, drug formularies (lists of drugs included in a given program), co-payments, and deductibles. Under the "noninterference" language of the MMA, the federal government is prohibited from "interfering" with those negotiations by mandating price discounts, formularies, or other central features of the drug benefit plans. This provision is seen by many as a means of minimizing government involvement in the market for pharmaceuticals; for example, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist argued in 2004 that "competition is better over time than price fixing."[1]

The new program will be large in terms of the number of enrollees and newly required federal spending, particularly with the growing population of baby-boom retirees. This has led to growing calls for a change in the "noninterference" provisions of the MMA, which would allow direct federal negotiation of price discounts for drugs; for example, Senator John Edwards has argued: "We [should] allow the government to use its bargaining power to bring down the costs of prescription drugs for all seniors."[2]

If given such a mandate, Medicare would become the single largest purchaser of prescription medicines in the U.S., with powerful incentives for policymakers to use the attendant purchasing power to obtain large price discounts. Those price discounts clearly would have an additional effect: They would reduce the economic returns to investment in the research and development of new and improved drugs. So one important concern raised by the possibility of federal price negotiations for drugs is a decline in that research and development, and thus in pharmaceutical innovation. Some argue that this effect would be large; others maintain that it has been exaggerated.

This paper presents findings on the magnitude of that likely effect under the assumption that the noninterference provisions of the MMA are removed. The analysis presented below begins with previously published findings on the effects of growing government drug purchases on drug prices. Those findings are applied to historical data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) on research and development investment trends for pharmaceuticals, with three different cases — a base case and two alternative cases — examined for the range of likely resulting impacts on that research and development spending over the period 2007–25. The NSF data are supplemented with additional public data from the United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Other published findings on the cost of drug development, on the effect of pharmaceuticals on life expectancies, and on the economic value of life-years are used to estimate the number of new and improved medicines that would fail to be developed, and the economic cost of that reduction in pharmaceutical innovation. The central findings can be summarized as follows:

  • For a program of federal price negotiations assumed to begin in 2007, the average price reduction for drugs for the period 2007–25 would be about 21.8 percent, which can be interpreted as a saving for taxpayers or patients and as an implicit "tax" on pharmaceutical producers.
  • This implicit tax would reduce pharmaceutical research and development investment annually by $5.6–11.6 billion, with the most likely effect at about $10 billion per year.
  • This reduction in research and development investment will result in a loss of between 6 and 12 new medicines per year, with the most likely reduction at about 10.
  • This reduced flow of new and improved medicines will cost Americans about 5 million life-years annually, which can be conservatively valued at about $500 billion annually, a figure far in excess of total annual U.S. spending on pharmaceuticals.

The discussion below proceeds as follows. Section II discusses differences in the negotiation incentives of the PBMs and the federal government. Section III offers a summary of federal pricing policies in other drug programs. Section IV presents a brief discussion of the simple economics of investment. Section V follows with a discussion of the methodology used for the analysis and a detailed presentation of the analytic findings. Section VI compares these findings with those in previously published research, and Section VII presents several conclusions. Appendix A offers a further discussion of the incentives confronting federal policymakers pursuing price negotiations with pharmaceutical producers, as contrasted with those shaping the decisions of the PBMs. Appendix B presents the data used in the analysis, and Appendix C presents charts of those data. Finally, Appendix D discusses briefly a recent report prepared by the Congressional Research Service on federal price negotiations for drugs.

Crucial Differences between the Federal Government and the PBMs

The complex adoption and implementation of public policies inevitably must create winners and losers. Seen in this context, prices for drugs negotiated by the federal government in effect impose a tax on pharmaceutical producers in the form of realized prices lower than otherwise would be the case; and they generate an implicit revenue stream for current drug consumers in the form of those same lower prices, or for the beneficiaries of other government spending programs.[3]

Such negotiated prices may seem analogous to the price discounts familiar to patrons of large pharmacy chains or insurers that negotiate with drug producers or with various middlemen, but three crucial differences between such negotiators and the federal government are clear. First, it is likely that the federal government would enjoy greater market power in price negotiations than a given "large" private-sector purchaser could exercise; note that the Medicaid program before the implementation of the Medicare drug benefit was the largest single purchaser of prescription drugs, accounting for over 19 percent of national prescription drug expenditures in 2004.[4] The CMS projects that federal government drug purchases will be over 40 percent of the national total by 2010.[5] As a monopsonistic purchaser of pharmaceuticals, government can be predicted to attempt to lower both the prices it pays and the quantities purchased; the latter effect is the deeper implication of the more restrictive formularies likely to be observed in the context of federal price negotiations, as discussed in more detail below.[6]

Second, unlike private-sector purchasers serving customers seeking both low prices and formularies that contain the drugs that they demand, the federal government does not have "customers" as such.[7] Instead, it has individual voters and collective interest groups, the demands of which are registered in infrequent elections driven by perceived voter/interest group preferences on numerous issues of varying political importance. It is by definition the case that negotiations between drug producers and retailers (or their market proxies) hinge on the prices at which both parties are willing to include given drugs in formularies; profit-seeking firms are driven by the demands of their customers to pursue some balance between the benefits of low prices and the benefits of formularies that are more, rather than less, inclusive. For the federal government, on the other hand — that is, for federal policymakers — lower prices offer budget relief, that is, greater potential spending on other budget categories, while less inclusive formularies offer even more such budget benefits. The beneficiaries of drug use cannot take their business elsewhere without moving to some other country or by simply buying retail. While it is likely to be the case that more inclusive formularies yield some political benefits, particularly for specific medicines demanded by organized or visible patient groups, the latter are offset partially or wholly by the political benefits of higher spending on other budget categories. In short, the substitution of federally determined formularies in place of those determined under market competition deprives consumers of the right to opt for more favorable alternatives. Thus do the negotiation incentives of federal policymakers differ substantially from those of large private-sector buyers ultimately serving retail customers.

Third, the more powerful partial incentive of large private buyers to satisfy their customers (i.e., patients) with larger formularies has the long-term effect of preserving economic incentives for research and development investment greater than is the likely case for prices and formulary restrictions determined in negotiations with the federal government.[8] This effect is separate from the market incentives of the pharmaceutical research (“branded”) industry to maintain research and development programs; those market incentives are independent of whether the buyer across the negotiation table is an insurer or the federal government.[9] But the weaker incentive of the latter to include given drugs in formularies automatically yields greater downward pressure on negotiated prices — drugs excluded from formularies are rewarded with a price of zero, and the federal government can be predicted to favor less inclusive formularies — and thus a reduction in expected returns to research and development.[10]

This problem of reduced long-term incentives for research and development investment inherent even (or particularly) in federal price negotiations is one dimension of the short time horizon confronting federal policymakers. Those policymakers have no claim, whether political or pecuniary, on the future benefits from ongoing investment; after all, many future patients are unavailable to vote today, and many of those who are available do not know that they will endure the future adverse effects engendered by the current investments — the future medicines — that are forgone.[11]

Prices under Current Federal Drug Programs

Unlike the case for the new Medicare Part D, the government purchases drugs or establishes drug prices for Medicaid, Medicare Part B, the Department of Veterans Affairs pharmacy program, and for various programs under the Public Health Service Act (PHS). Each obtains drugs at discounted prices, but the computation and magnitudes of the respective discounts differ.

Medicaid drug spending in 2004 (federal and state) was about $36.6 billion (in then-year dollars), accounting for over 19 percent of total U.S. spending on drugs that year, having grown at about 9 percent per year since 2000, even after adjusting for inflation. Medicaid requires drug producers to participate in a national rebate (essentially, a price discount) program in order for their respective drugs to be included in the Medicaid formulary for a given state.[12] The rebate is determined by the average manufacturer’s price (AMP) and by the manufacturer's "best" price paid by retail pharmacies and other large private-sector buyers. For brand-name drugs, the rebate is the greater of: (a) 15.1 percent of the AMP; or (b) the difference between the AMP and the best price.[13] (For generic drugs, the rebate is 11 percent of the AMP.) Under the first formula, the Medicaid rebate amounts to a straightforward excise tax of 15.1 percent of the AMP applied to Medicaid sales; note that the AMP, while not defined uniformly, is an average across several markets, so that it is, in some crude sense, a market price. Under the second formula, state Medicaid programs receive the best prices negotiated by large private-sector buyers, so that in effect, the rebate serves as an implicit tax on price discounts negotiated outside Medicaid because discounts offered to large private-sector buyers must be offered to the Medicaid programs as well.

Medicare Part B reimburses physicians and other medical providers for drugs used for such outpatient services as dialysis treatment and for drugs given to patients "incident to" physician services. Most are cancer and antinausea drugs taken orally, inhalation therapies, and oral immunosuppressives. Medicare payments for Part B drugs over time have been based on a series of shifting computations: the physician's "acquisition" cost, varying percentages (at various times, 85–100 percent) of average wholesale price (AWP), and the lower of estimated acquisition cost and some percentage of AWP. These differing methods of computing payments for the providers have been implemented at various times because Part B reimbursements often have been found to exceed the actual prices at which the medical providers were able to obtain the drugs, yielding "overpayment."[14] Because of this perceived problem, the MMA established a new payment system for Part B based upon a drug producer's average sales prices (ASP), thus presumably reflecting market prices. But because the ASP includes price discounts negotiated with various buyers, the requirement that Part B prices reflect ASP in effect imposes a tax on such discounts negotiated with other buyers, as in the case of Medicaid discussed above.

It is commonly reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs "negotiates" the prices that it pays for pharmaceuticals. That is a misconception: Under the 1992 Veterans Health Care Act, two price constraints are imposed. First, there is a minimum 24 percent discount from the AMP, often called the Federal Ceiling Price (FCP); in addition to the VA, this price is available to the Defense Department, the Indian Health Service, and the Coast Guard. Second, there is a Federal Supply Schedule (FSS) requirement that the pharmaceutical producers sell drugs to the VA at the "best price" offered private-sector buyers. These FSS "best prices" must be offered as well to many health-care programs receiving federal funding; thus does the FSS "best price" requirement allow the federal government and many others to receive the benefits of private-sector negotiations without undertaking any negotiations themselves. The VA is entitled under the law to receive the lower of the FCP and FSS prices. The 24 percent discount under the FCP is explicitly a tax on drug prices; and the FSS best-price requirement, as in the case of both Medicaid and Medicare Part B, is a tax on negotiated prices.

Drug producers refusing to sell at these prices would be precluded from selling their products both to the VA through the FSS system and to Medicaid, thus shutting themselves out of 10–15 percent of their sales. For most pharmaceuticals, production costs per pill (or dose) are small, so that a loss of so significant a portion of sales — combined with a fixed period of patent protection — can wreak havoc with sales and pricing strategies designed to recoup large research and development costs. This is one manifestation of federal pricing power, the central implication of which is that the implicit tax, whether large or small, would be difficult to avoid.

The Public Health Service Act implements drug price discounts for such programs as Community Health Centers, Ryan White program grantees, and AIDS Drug Assistance Programs. Drug producers selling to such programs are required to offer discounts at least as large as the AMP discounts under Medicaid. Similarly, these prices implicitly impose a tax on market prices.

Some Simple Economics of Investment

This experience with other federal drug programs demonstrates that the mandated price discounts, as they are defined and implemented, analytically are taxes not only on the prices paid for the drugs sold for the specific programs, but under some conditions also on the prices negotiated with large private-sector buyers for sales outside the federal programs.[15] As such, the discounts incontrovertibly must reduce the perceived economic returns to research and development investment in the creation of new and improved drugs. This effect would be strengthened by federal price negotiations under Medicare; the central issue to be addressed is the magnitude of that effect.

Any investment is "efficient" (that is, expected to be profitable) as long as the anticipated future rate of return or stream of profits from the investment, adjusted for risk and other factors, is equal to or greater than the market rate of interest. This should be intuitively obvious: If the rate of return from an investment is expected to fall below the "cost of money," the investment should not be made. That future rate of return is determined in substantial part by the net price that the future products are likely to command; accordingly, taxes on that price, whether explicit or implicit, must reduce that future return by some amount.

So the tax will reduce investment, even if the lower rate of return remains at or above the market rate of interest. But if the tax reduces the future rate of return below the market rate of interest, investment will fall to zero because no part of the investment remains efficient.

This case of zero investment may seem extreme, but it is highly plausible under a broad set of conditions. Consider a market in which pharmaceutical research and development investments earn competitive returns (as contrasted with above-competitive returns); this outcome can obtain for two reasons. First, pharmaceutical products can be direct and indirect competitors; when finally approved for sale, their prices may yield only competitive rates of return.[16] Second, pharmaceutical producers invest in a portfolio of potential new products and drugs; it is efficient for such investments to be made until the last invested dollar is expected to yield only the market rate of return.[17] But in any given year, not all such investments will yield returns greater than or equal to the market rate of interest; some will prove to be losers. Some years will be relatively profitable in terms of research and development success and the market prices received for drugs, and other years will be afflicted with relatively heavy losses; investment outcomes over time are subject to random influences, so that the statistical distribution of returns over time has an average equal to the market rate of interest adjusted for perceived risk.[18]

But the implicit federal price-discount tax would not be imposed randomly; it is the drugs that finally are approved for sale that would be subjected to the tax. So large-scale federal price negotiation of drug prices would create a bias in the returns earned by pharmaceutical producers: Upside potential for the investments yielding approved drugs would be reduced, while downside potential for losing investments would remain unaffected. This means that average returns must decline. If the average expected return in the absence of federally mandated price discounts is at the market rate of interest, the introduction of discounts must yield a reduction in investment, and perhaps zero (or near zero) investment.[19] The only way for a producer to avoid this outcome is to reduce or eliminate investment in new drugs either riskier or prospectively less profitable, a market adjustment with highly adverse implications.[20] The upshot of this adjustment process is a market with less research and development investment — and fewer new medicines — than otherwise would be the case.

Quantitative Analysis of Research and Development Investment under a Federal Price Negotiation System

There is no dispute in the economics literature with respect to the downward effect of mandated price discounts upon research and development investment. The analytic issue to be addressed is the likely magnitude of that impact were the noninterference provisions of the MMA to be repealed. We proceed as follows. We examine the published literature for empirical findings on the effect of federal drug purchases on the growth of drug prices. Those findings are applied to historical data on research and development investment trends for pharmaceuticals, in order to estimate the resulting future downward effect upon that investment. The period for which the projections are made is 2007–25. Other published findings are used to estimate the number of new drugs that would fail to be developed as a result of the reduction in research and development investment, the effect of pharmaceuticals on life expectancies, and the resulting economic cost created by federal price negotiations for drugs and the resulting decline in pharmaceutical innovation.

Because the other federal and state drug programs already in operation impose downward price pressures of varying kinds, empirical literature is available that links those price effects with government spending on drugs. In particular, a recent paper by Santerre et al. presents empirical analysis of the historical price effects of increases in the governmental share of total pharmaceutical spending.[21] That paper reports a decline in the growth of real pharmaceutical prices from 1962 through 2001, yielding reduced research and development investment and fewer new medicines.[22] In brief, the statistical analysis presented in Santerre et al. finds an annual reduction of 1.2 percent in the growth of real drug prices attendant upon each 10 percent increase in the government share of drug spending before 1992, and an annual reduction in drug prices of 5.3 percent for each 10 percent increase in the spending share after 1992.[23] Note that these are annual reductions in the growth rate of drug prices and thus would compound over time.

Santerre et al. use those econometric findings to estimate the research and development investments forgone because of the rising share of government pharmaceutical spending, and then use Lichtenberg's empirical findings on the effect of pharmaceutical research and development investment on life expectancies in the U.S. to derive an estimate of the life-years lost because of the price effects of the growing governmental share of drug spending.[24] Santerre et al. estimate that for 1962 through 2001, forgone research and development investment was $251–256.3 billion. Given Lichtenberg's estimate that an additional life-year is obtained from a research and development investment of $1,345, the estimated loss in terms of life-years over the period is between 186.6 million and 190.5 million, or roughly 4.7 million per year. Using a range of $50,000–150,000 for the assumed value of a life-year lost, Santerre et al. conclude that the adverse effect of growing government drug purchases and attendant price impacts for the 40-year period is in the range of $9.3–28.6 trillion.

For the analysis reported here, U.S. pharmaceutical and biotechnological research and development investment data for 1985 through 2003, converted to year 2005 dollars, were obtained from datasets constructed by the National Science Foundation, and then compared or supplemented with data from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.[25] Research and development investment spending during 1993–2003 grew at an annual compound rate of almost 8 percent; that rate was used in the analysis reported below to project annual investment data to the year 2025.

Just as annual investment in plant and equipment over time yields a "stock" of plant and equipment — the sum of the annual investments minus annual depreciation — the data on annual investment in pharmaceutical research and development allow a calculation of the U.S. pharmaceutical research and development capital stock. This capital stock can be thought of as the plant, equipment, intellectual advances, and other assets created with the annual investments, minus depreciation. At the outset of 1985, the pharmaceutical research and development capital stock is assumed to be six times 1985 investment; this is a standard investment/capital assumption used in a number of published economic analyses.[26] Annual depreciation is assumed at 8 percent, so that for each year, the capital stock is that remaining from the previous year, plus new investment.[27] The annual data and projections are shown in Table B1 of Appendix B. Table 1 presents the data and projections for both investment and the capital stock at five-year intervals in the assumed absence of federal price negotiations for Medicare Part D. Annual investment is projected to grow from $13.5 billion in 2000 to $95.7 billion in 2025; the respective figures for the capital stock are $87.9 billion and $645.4 billion.

Data from the CMS show an increase in the federal spending share for drugs, from 9.4 percent in 1992 to 16.9 percent in 2004, rising to a projected 39.7 percent in 2006 and 43.4 percent in 2015.[28] Almost all this increase after 2004 is due to the effect of the MMA on Medicare drug spending, which is projected in 2015 to be almost 70 percent of all federal drug spending.

The empirical analysis presented by Santerre et al., summarized above, implies strongly that downward pressure on drug prices will intensify as the public-sector share of total drug spending increases. Using the lower estimate of that effect reported by Santerre et al., together with the CMS projection of the federal and total government spending share for drugs, we can estimate the resulting percent downward effect — the implicit tax — on drug prices.

Table 2 presents those projections of the federal and total government shares of national drug spending and the adjusted downward price effects (compound “tax” rates) implied by the Santerre et al. analysis as applied to the increasing federal share after 2005. The implicit tax estimates are adjusted by: (1) assuming a 5 percent implicit price tax as an effect of all government drug purchases before 2006; (2) holding constant for all subsequent years the 2006 federal government spending share; and (3) assuming a marginal implicit price tax of 1.2 percent per 10 percent increase in the federal share of total drug spending, compounded annually.[29] We adopt these conservative assumptions because it is appropriate to estimate a lower bound on the research and development effects of federal price negotiations and because some downward pressure on prices can be expected as a result of negotiations between the pharmaceutical producers and the Medicare Part D PBMs even in the absence of negotiations by the federal government. The major increase in the federal drug spending share projected by the CMS is in 2005–06, from 17.2 percent to 39.7 percent. Under the assumptions described above, the implicit tax on pharmaceutical prices would rise from 5 percent in 2005 to 13.1 percent in 2010 to over 35 percent in 2025. For 2007–25, the average implicit tax is 21.8 percent.

This prediction is moderately lower than the 27.5 percent price differential estimated by Santerre et al. for 1962–82, and lower than the 28–38 percent figure for 1992–2001 estimated as a consequence of market purchases by all levels of government. Note that their analysis did not include federal purchases for Medicare. Moreover, the sheer size of the Medicare drug program can be predicted to strengthen the monopsony (purchaser) pricing power of the federal government, an effect likely to be increased further by any threat to exclude given drugs not only from Medicare formularies but from Medicaid and other public formularies as well. Accordingly, the available empirical evidence suggests that a price reduction of 1.2 percent per 10 percent spending share, compounded annually, represents a conservative assumption — a lower bound — for the likely price effect for pharmaceuticals attendant upon federal negotiations over Medicare drugs.

A downward price effect imposed in the short or medium term will affect current investor behavior, since the research and development (and regulatory approval) process for new drugs is about ten years or longer. From the viewpoint of a pharmaceutical producer considering a particular investment in research and development, the implicit tax affects the present (discounted) value of the expected future revenue stream.[30] As intuition suggests, simple analytics show that, as a first approximation, a compounded price effect of a given percent would reduce the present value of the net revenue stream by that same percent.[31]

It is possible that pharmaceutical research and development investment is so profitable that this implicit tax would have little effect. Were that true, we would expect to observe substantial new entry into the market. As discussed above, it is possible as well that a zero investment outcome would be observed, as the tax might reduce expected returns below the market rate of interest. A conservative assumption for purposes of developing projections is proportionality: The implicit annual compound 1.2 percent tax imposed by federal price negotiations would reduce research and development investment by that percentage, also compounded annually.[32] Table 3 presents projections analogous to those in Table 1 under the assumption that the implicit tax is imposed beginning in 2007.

The data and projections presented in Table B1, as summarized in Table 3, yield conservative estimates of the investment effects of the implicit tax inherent in federal price negotiations for pharmaceuticals. The cumulative decline in research and development investment for 2007–25 is predicted to be $196 billion in year 2005 dollars, or $10.3 billion per year. The predicted decline in 2025 in the pharmaceutical research and development capital stock is $133.1 billion. If we assume a marginal investment cost of $1 billion per new drug, the decline in research and development investment implies the loss of about 196 new medicines over the simulation time period, or roughly ten new medicines per year.

Santerre et al. estimate a cumulative reduction in pharmaceutical investment of about $261 billion (in year 2005 dollars) for 1962–2001, or about $6.5 billion per year on average.[33] As described above, that estimate flows from a conceptual experiment similar to that reported here, with somewhat different estimation methodologies applied. More important, that analysis examines price behavior in the absence of federal price negotiations under Medicare, a condition that largely explains the increased investment effect reported here, an outcome of the projected price effects of the sharp increase in the 2006 federal spending share for pharmaceuticals, assumed constant after 2006.

The findings of empirical research are often heavily affected by certain underlying assumptions, sometimes in subtle ways, so it is useful to change those assumptions to see the degree to which the findings are "sensitive" to those changes. One parameter discussed above is the use of the historical growth rate during 1993–2003 for pharmaceutical research and development investment — almost 8 percent per year — as the growth rate assumed for the period through 2025 in the absence of federal price negotiations. Smaller assumed growth rates would reduce the projected effect of the implicit negotiation tax, while larger assumed future investment would increase that effect.

Table 4 presents a first sensitivity case, in which research and development investment in the absence of a federal negotiation effect is assumed to grow at 4 percent per year, half the rate (almost 8 percent) observed in the NSF data for 1993–2003. This sensitivity case is a bit arbitrary — why half? — but a 50 percent reduction in the growth rate is a useful “compromise” between a drastic reduction in assumed investment and only a small reduction that would not make much difference. Under this assumption, cumulative research and development investment between 2007 and 2025 is projected to decline $107.1 billion, or about $5.6 billion per year as a result of federal price negotiations. The decline in the projected capital stock in 2025 is $68.4 billion. Under this lower investment growth assumption, the decline in projected investment attendant upon federal price negotiations implies the loss of 107 new medicines over the simulation period, or about six new medicines per year.

Table 5 presents a second sensitivity case, in which the historical research and development investment data from PhRMA are used to project investment with and without federal negotiation effects on prices.[34] The assumed annual compound growth rate for investment in the absence of the tax is 4 percent, as in the first sensitivity case, but the levels of investment are higher than in the NSF data, particularly after 1990. The cumulative investment decline through 2025 is projected to be $220.4 billion, or about $11.6 billion per year. The predicted decline in the research and development capital stock is $140.8 billion; the projected decline in investment for this case implies a loss of about 220 new medicines, or about 12 per year.

Table 6 summarizes the projected decline in the development of new drugs for the three cases.

These estimates of the future reduction in the flow of new and improved medicines can be used to project resulting effects on lost life-years for Americans. Lichtenberg estimates that between 1960 and 1997, each pharmaceutical research and development investment of $1,345 yielded an expected gain of one life-year.[35] If we assume, crudely, that figure to be $2,000 in year 2005 dollars, the investment decline, projected in the base case at about $10 billion annually as a consequence of federal price negotiations, would result in 5 million life-years lost each year. At an assumed $100,000 per life-year,[36] the economic cost of this effect would be about $500 billion per year, far in excess of total annual U.S. spending on pharmaceuticals.[37] As discussed above, the assumptions underlying the base-case investment projections are highly conservative;[38] accordingly, the effects summarized as the base case in Table 6 and then expressed in terms of lost life-years and economic costs can reasonably be viewed as a lower bound on the prospective effects of federal price negotiations for pharmaceuticals.

Another approach is to ask how the projected annual decline in the number of new medicines compares with the annual number of new drug approvals by the FDA over the last several years. Table 7 presents those data. For 1995–2005, there were on average 98 new drug approvals annually. Our base-case projection of annual new medicines lost is about 10 percent of that figure. For 2000–05, new drug approvals averaged 62 annually; our base-case projection is about 16 percent of that figure.[39] Accordingly, it is reasonable to observe that the tax effects projected here are not trivial. In particular, the adverse investment effects are likely to be concentrated on drug research that otherwise would serve smaller populations, riskier treatments, and drugs expected to prove relatively less profitable.

Related Research Findings

Other research findings are available and can be compared with those presented here. Using data for the 15 largest pharmaceutical producers, Vernon estimates that implementation of European-type price regulation by the federal government would yield a decline in research and development investment of 36–48 percent.[40] Golec et al. estimate that the mere proposal of pharmaceutical price restraints in the Health Security Act by the Clinton administration in 1993 reduced research and development spending by $1 billion despite the fact that the proposal was never enacted into law. That figure is $1.24 billion in 2005 dollars and was 15 percent of pharmaceutical research and development spending that year.[41] Abbott and Vernon estimate that small price reductions of about 5 percent would yield declines in research and development investment of 5 percent but that price reductions of 40–45 percent would drive research and development spending down by 50–60 percent.[42] Santerre et al. find an annual reduction of 1.2 percent in the growth of real drug prices attendant upon each 10 percent increase in the government share of drug spending before 1992, and an annual reduction in drug prices of 5.3 percent for each 10 percent increase in the spending share after 1992.[43]

The International Trade Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that the pharmaceutical price controls imposed by some members of the OECD, if extrapolated to the OECD more broadly,would reduce sales revenues by 25–38 percent and research and development investment by 11–16 percent.[44] Giaccotto et al. find a 6 percent change in research and development spending attendant upon a 10 percent change in the growth of real drug prices.[45] The implicit tax estimated above (Table 2) attendant upon a federal spending share of 39.7 percent is 35.3 percent in 2025; the Giaccotto et al. estimate would have been about 24 percent using the same methodology. Vernon finds that regulation of U.S. pharmaceutical prices yielding profits equal to those observed on average in non-U.S. markets would reduce research and development investment by 23.4–32.7 percent.[46] Finally, Vernon et al. find that a reduction in drug prices of 10 percent would engender a reduction in research and development spending of 5.83 percent.[47]

Table 8 summarizes these comparative findings. Notwithstanding differences in conceptual experiments and methodologies, the findings presented here are broadly consistent with those reported elsewhere in the published literature.


Federal price negotiations for drugs under Medicare Part D would reduce costs for taxpayers and perhaps patients, but those effects can be achieved only at the cost of reduced pharmaceutical innovation, projected in this research to be substantial. While the average effect across the population in terms of life expectancy may or may not be “small,” depending on somewhat subjective perspectives on the value of lost days, months, or even years, the effects are likely to be large by any definition for particular patient groups. That the reduced flow of new medicines, summarized above in Table 6, clearly will not be trivial underscores the stakes for individuals suffering from such specific conditions as cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s disease.

One crude measure of the value of pharmaceutical technology is total spending on medicines. As noted above, a conservative estimate of the average annual future economic loss — in terms of forgone life-years — caused by reduced pharmaceutical research and development investment is $500 billion, an amount far greater than total U.S. spending on drugs both now and in the future, as projected by the CMS. This suggests that the short-term gains would be outweighed greatly by the longer-term losses; that those losses will be inflicted disproportionately upon patient groups cannot be a source of indifference.[48]

The federal government, of course, buys many things, and the results here do not suggest that the U.S. economy writ large would benefit from the absence of federal negotiations over prices in any market. In most other contexts, the federal government is both the price negotiator and the consumer and so has some interest in preserving both the availability of given goods and technological advances; the latter may be particularly true in the context of national security capital demanded by a permanent bureaucracy. In many contexts, both the federal government and the given producer have market power, so that negotiation over price may yield outcomes closer to those that would emerge under competitive conditions. This “bilateral monopoly” condition is unlikely to characterize negotiations over prices for drugs that are not unique within a given class.[49] Most important, most goods do not exhibit the combination of large fixed costs and low marginal production costs that characterize most pharmaceuticals. The upshot of this almost unique condition is the opportunity to drive very hard price bargains without harming availability in the short term. But the longer term is the problem, the adverse effects upon which federal policymakers have relatively weak incentives to address.

The fiscal crisis inherent in Medicare is far greater than the short-term savings that federal price negotiations might yield, but the resulting longer-term costs caused by reduced pharmaceutical innovation are large. So once again, we are confronted with a stark choice: Cheap drugs in the here and now would prove expensive indeed tomorrow.





Center for Medical Progress.


MPR 03 PDF (1.6MB)


House approves Medicare drug bill, Philadelphia Inquirer, 01-14-07
We oppose negotiations on Medicare Part D drug prices, USA Today, 01-10-07
Drug Ads: Kill the Messenger?, New York Post, 12-19-06
A Price-Control Virus, National Review Online, 01-02-07
Congress Should Not Infect Medicare Drug Plan With Price Controls, Human Events, 12-28-06
Medicare Prices Top Priority on Democrats' Agenda, Monterey County Herald, 12-17-06
Bad Medicine, New York Sun, Editorial, 12-12-06
Should Medicare negotiate drug prices? NO, Kansas City Star, 12-10-06
Little Big Pharma, Wall Street Journal, 12-06-06
Pelosi And Pfizer, Investor's Business Daily, Editorial, 12-06-06
A Medicare Gamble?, Chicago Tribune, Editorial, 12-03-06
Beware the Devil You Don't Know, Reason Online, 12-01-06
Pelosi's Shaky Start,, 12-01-06
Projected Drug Plan Savings Show No Need for Part D Direct Negotiation, Drug Industry Daily, 11-30-06
Federal Negotiations for Medicare Prescription Drug Prices Would Stifle Industry Innovation, Report Finds, Kaiser Reports, 11-29-06

The report analyzes the likely effect of mandating direct federal price negotiations for drugs under the new Medicare Part D drug benefit, and finds that doing so would substantially reduce the number of new prescription drugs brought to market each year – a costly consequence for American patients.





Crucial Differences between the Federal Government and the PBMs

Prices under Current Federal Drug Programs

Some Simple Economics of Investment

Quantitative Analysis of Research and Development Investment under a Federal Price Negotiation System

Table 1: Pharmaceutical Research and Development Investment and Capital

Table 2: Federal/Total Government Drug Spending Shares and Implied Compound Tax Rates

Table 3: Total Pharmaceutical Research and Development Investment and Capital with Implicit Federal Price Negotiation Tax

Table 4: Total Pharmaceutical Research and Development Investment and Capital with Implicit Federal Price Negotiation Tax: First Sensitivity Case

Table 5: Total Pharmaceutical Research and Development Investment and Capital with Implicit Federal Price Negotiation Tax: Second Sensitivity Case

Table 6: Projected Declines in Investment and Development of New Medicines, 2007–25

Table 7: FDA New Drug Approvals

Related Research Findings

Table 8: Comparison of Empirical Findings




APPENDIX A: Further Observations on the Incentives of Federal PolicyMakers

APPENDIX B: Data Tables

Table B1. Historical and Projected Data on Pharmaceutical Research and Development: NSF Data and Investment Growth of 7.967 Percent (millions of year 2005 dollars)

Table B2. Historical and Projected Data on Pharmaceutical Research and Development: NSF Data and Investment Growth of 4 Percent (millions of year 2005 dollars)

Table B3. Historical and Projected Data on Pharmaceutical Research and Development: PhRMA Data and Investment Growth of 4 Percent (millions of year 2005 dollars)


Chart 1. Base Case R & D Investment

Chart 2. Base Case R & D Capital Stocks

Chart 3. First Sensitivity Case R & D Investment

Chart 4. First Sensitivity Case R & D Capital Stocks

Chart 5. Second Sensitivity Case R & D Investment

Chart 6. Second Sensitivity Case R & D Capital Stocks

APPENDIX D: Brief Observations on the Congressional Research Service Report on Federal Price Negotiations for Drugs


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