Center for American Progress

Prescription Drug Reform Is a Women’s Economic Security Issue
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Prescription Drug Reform Is a Women’s Economic Security Issue

Lowering the cost of prescription drugs would ensure that women and their families are able to access needed health care while also bolstering their economic security.

A woman with sickle cell disease poses for a portrait.
A woman with sickle cell disease poses for a portrait in Brockton, Massachusetts, on November 20, 2017. (Getty/The Boston Globe/Dina Rudick)

Women, due in part to greater health care utilization rates as well as their role as primary caregivers responsible for others’ medical costs, are often saddled with significantly higher health care costs than men—costs that are tied to the ever-increasing price of prescription drugs. This financial burden is further compounded by the wage gap and consequent wealth inequalities that disproportionately affect low-income women and women of color, who already face steep challenges in accessing care.

It is therefore critical for policymakers to pursue proposals, such as those in the U.S. House-passed reconciliation bill in late 2021, to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. This can be done, for example, by empowering Medicare to negotiate certain high-cost drugs and by addressing dramatic price hikes and the cost of insulin.

As policymakers continue to look for ways to lower costs for all Americans, a critical part of that endeavor must be lowering drug prices to strengthen the health and economic security of women and their families.

Far from being just another health care reform, addressing the exorbitantly high costs of prescription medications would meaningfully improve the health and economic security of women and their families across the country.

Women spend more on health care than men

Women spend significantly more on health care than men. One recent study by the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker found that women’s annual health expenditures between the ages of 19 and 34 are nearly double those of men in the same age range. As a result, half of women between the ages of 18 and 49 report skipping or delaying needed medical care due to cost.

Furthermore, given the significant wage gap in American—with women making just 83 cents for every dollar earned by men and most women of color making much less than that—these greater expenditures mean that a higher percentage of a woman’s income is spent on health care. It should be no surprise, then, that one recent study found that 52 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 49 have problems paying at least one medical bill.

While the difference in expenditures lessens as the population ages, older women on Medicare have significantly lower savings than men while also facing higher out-of-pocket spending.

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Women also face exceptionally high prescription drug costs

These increased costs and financial difficulties are also apparent when it comes to prescription drug spending: While more than half of all women in the United States use at least one prescription medication on a regular basis, compared with about a third of men, nearly 30 percent of women are still unable to afford a prescribed medication in a given year, compared with less than 20 percent of men.

As a result, women are more likely to not only put off health care but also skip medications. This is particularly true for women of color, including Black women, who are more likely than other racial and gender groups to suffer from chronic conditions—such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke—that come with high prescription drug costs.

In addition, women are more likely to be responsible for the costs of their children’s prescription drugs. For many, those costs can be economically crippling. In 2018, for example, a mother from Old Town, Maine, explained in an interview with Ms. magazine: “I want to be able to provide adequately for my family. But one of my paychecks wouldn’t even cover his insulin. How am I to keep my child healthy and alive at prices like that?”

Big Pharma’s high prices often target women

What makes this problem all the more troubling is the fact that the pharmaceutical industry often dramatically hikes prices far past the rate of inflation, all while reaping significant profits, more generally, from drugs that are specifically intended for women.

One widely cited example is Herceptin, a breast cancer drug that saw a 78 percent price increase from 2005 to 2017. In fact, breast cancer was found by at least one study to be the most expensive cancer to treat, with medication spending accounting for the largest percentage of spending to treat the condition. And as previous Center for American Progress analysis has detailed, the contraceptive Millicent’s Femring, as well as a drug that treats symptoms of menopause, Teva’s Prefest, were among the drugs with the highest price hikes in January 2021.

Yet it is important to keep in mind that women also use prescription drugs that aren’t typically thought of as “women’s drugs” and are therefore negatively affected by high drug prices more broadly as well. In fact, one recent study demonstrated that women with diabetes face higher out-of-pocket costs and direct expenditures than do their male counterparts.

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Conclusion: Drug pricing reform is critical for women

The House-passed budget reconciliation package includes some critical reforms to address the astronomically high cost of drugs. Perhaps most notably, the bill would allow for Medicare to negotiate some high-cost drugs, require rebates when drug companies raise the price of a drug faster than the rate of inflation, and limit insulin cost-sharing for people both in Medicare and with private insurance.

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Women stand to benefit from these reforms in a variety of ways, particularly given the high costs and dramatic price increases of the many drugs likely to be captured by these reforms that treat conditions disproportionately experienced by women. And even for drugs affected by congressional reforms but not widely used by women, the lower costs would still disproportionately benefit women due to the wealth and wage gaps noted above.

As policymakers continue to look for ways to lower costs for all Americans, a critical part of that endeavor must be lowering drug prices to strengthen the health and economic security of women and their families.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

Authors

Maggie Jo Buchanan

Senior Director, Women's Initiative

Osub Ahmed

Associate Director, Women's Health and Rights

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