Drug Prices in Boston Are Way Higher than the International Standard

A new report found that drugs are up to 158 times costlier here than abroad.

As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, Boston is an expensive city. But rent prices aren’t the only costs reaching stratospheric levels: A new report says medications sold in Boston cost as much as 158 times more than the international standard.

Drugs sold in the United States are notoriously expensive, largely thanks to our healthcare and pharmaceutical systems, but few analyses have compared U.S. prices to those overseas. To do so, a team led by Boston University global health professor Richard Laing purchased brand-name and generic versions of 51 drugs—some prescription, some over-the-counter—from Boston-area pharmacies and retailers. They then compared the costs to international reference prices (IRPs).

The results are sobering. Median prices for brand-name and generic prescription medications were 158 and 38 times higher than the IRPs, respectively; median prices for over-the-counter medications were 21 and 11 times costlier. Those ratios may differ a bit state by state, but the researchers say they’re a fair reference point for pricing nationwide.

For context, the World Health Organization’s target for acceptable U.S. pricing is four or fewer times the IRP. The only studied drugs that came close to that price point were those offered through pharmacy discount programs—the kind at large retailers such as Target, CVS, and Walgreens—which typically priced products between 4.4 and 13.9 times the IRP.

“Very few people pay the full price (for prescription medicines), because they typically have some type of insurance, but we’re showing that even with those discounts, they’re still paying more,” study lead Laing told Stat.

Your pharmacy of choice makes a difference, too. The study found that big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target often sell drugs for less than chain or independent pharmacies, though many did not stock the full gamut of drugs examined in the study.

The researchers wrote in the study that their results highlight a need for greater transparency in the pharmaceutical industry, so that consumers are able to pay as little as possible for the medications they need.

“If the policy in the U.S. is not to regulate medicine prices, but rather rely on retail price competition, then a transparent system is needed that allows consumers to easily check prescription medicine prices at different pharmacies,” they wrote. “Consumers must be empowered to choose facilities and payment options most beneficial to them.”