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Why are Mental Health Drugs So Expensive?

August 28, 2020

high drug prices

Despite the stigma and misconceptions that still persist around mental health disorders and treatment, mental health problems are among some of the most common health issues for Americans. About one in five Americans (over 47 million people) suffer from some form of mental illness each year. Mental illnesses range from mild to severe and encompass everything from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Approximately 40 million (one in six) Americans take some form of prescription medication for a mental health issue.

Like virtually every class of prescription drug sold in the United States, the cost of mental health drugs is a main concern for many of the people who rely on them for their productivity, health, and overall wellbeing. Barriers to healthcare and insurance, as well as the high cost of prescription drugs in the United States can make it difficult for affected Americans to get the help and medications they need.

Unlike other common health conditions like high blood pressure or asthma, mental health problems aren't necessarily contained to an individual — they can have ripple effects through entire families and communities, making access to adequate treatment and affordable mediation even more urgent.

Unfortunately, mental health drugs are one of the many types of medications millions of Americans are choosing to forego because often they simply can't afford them.

The Most Common Mental Health Disorders in the United States

Mental health issues present in varying degrees of severity and affect everyone differently. Some people need more treatment and medication than others to manage their condition and maintain a stable and healthy quality of life. That said, taking prescription medication is often necessary with certain mental illnesses, regardless of how healthy the person might be otherwise.

While these prescriptions provide enhanced quality of life and crucial support, rationing prescription medications has become a common (and dangerous) practice among Americans of all age groups and backgrounds. Unable to pay for their medications as prescribed, some people delay filling their prescriptions to save money, or take less than the recommended dosage to make the prescription last longer. Not only does this make treatment less effective, it can have dangerous and even fatal consequences.

To make matters worse, millions of Americans take more than one prescription medication at any given time, opening up a plethora of possible problems. It's estimated that over 40% of Americans take at least one prescription medication, and 17% are prescribed at least three different drugs at any given time. The constant fear and worry over how to pay for healthcare expenses and prescription drugs would be enough to drive anyone into a state of anxiety, stress, and depression without even considering the stress caused by having a disease that requires the medication in the first place.

Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry has created a system that has prioritized profits over the health and well-being of the very people they are supposed to serve. The system has allowed the pharmaceutical industry to have a significant amount of latitude, exploiting American consumers to the point of financial ruin and even death in cases where lifesaving medications have been priced out of the average consumer's reach. Perhaps even more disturbing, having health insurance and prescription drug coverage doesn't always mean your medications are less expensive.

Some of the most common mental health disorders and illnesses for which people take prescription drugs include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression and mood disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Phobias
  • Schizophrenia
  • Personality disorders

Some disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder require medication to keep patients stable and to help manage their symptoms, just like physical illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes. With other illnesses like depression and anxiety, medication is also often used to help treat patients with severe symptoms. Medication is often paired with talk therapy or is prescribed by a general physician who checks in with the patient every few months to assess anxiety and depression levels, and adjust the dosage as necessary.

Regardless, there's a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to whether someone should take prescription medication (and which drug is best) for mood disorders, phobias, and anxiety. Furthermore, practitioners and therapists have differing opinions of dosage, even within their own specialties.

This has opened the door to what many consider to be abusive practices by the pharmaceutical industry by way of over marketing and pushing doctors to over prescribe certain drugs in order to boost their profits. The practice has been well-documented, and in the case of the opioid epidemic, has resulted in massive settlements in favor of the American people and the local governments that have footed the bill for the death toll.

How Pharmaceutical Companies Target American Consumers

For younger Americans (perhaps born in or after the 1990s), pharmaceutical drug company marketing and advertising are just a normal way of life. By extension, so is getting a prescription for even the most minor of "conditions" or health problems. In fact, issues that were once considered wellness issues to be addressed and monitored through lifestyle adjustments have now become verifiable medical problems thanks to pharmaceutical industry branding campaigns ("dry eye syndrome" being one example).

But for older Americans, there was once a time when the decision to prescribe medication belonged almost exclusively to doctors and health care professionals — experts who based their decisions on medical precedent, accepted practices, and the individual patient's needs. Today, American doctors and consumers are under constant pressure not just to utilize prescriptions, but to figure out how to pay for them.

Pharmaceutical companies launch commercials and advertising campaigns that target consumers and encourage them to "ask their doctor" if a certain medication is right for them. But on a less obvious level, they also employ armies of brand ambassadors and pharmaceutical sales representatives to target doctors and incentivize them to prescribe the drugs on their company's product offering.

And if that weren't enough, insurance companies often broker deals with pharmaceutical companies to put certain drugs on their "preferred" coverage lists — even medications that perform the same function and retail at similar prices. For example, Brand A might be "preferred" over Brand B, but Brand B is actually a few dollars cheaper than Brand A. The difference is that Brand A brokered a deal that Brand B could not close.

If the patient feels that Brand B works better for them, they'll have to jump through multiple hoops in order to obtain a special authorization for the prescription — and even then, it's not always possible.

Along with the ethical implications of price gouging consumers, these practices have helped to foster a chaotic and dangerous economy where the cost of essential drugs are grossly inflated. Additionally, it has created a market that is saturated with prescription drugs that some people might not necessarily need. This ultimately makes it more difficult for the people who actually do need these medications to be able to afford them.

Mental Health Problems are On the Rise

Despite the fact that so many Americans suffer from some type and degree of mental illness, they aren't necessarily comfortable seeking (or willing to seek) treatment. Statistics show that mental health disorders like anxiety have practically doubled in young people over the past decades, but children and adolescents often aren't getting the help they need — something that is crucial at such an impressionable age. There are many factors that affect how and why people get treatment for mental health issues, but experts believe that the cost of prescription drugs in the United States is one of the primary barriers to access.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) found that anxiety is also on the rise in American adults. A recent poll found that up to 40% of the respondents admitted to feeling higher levels of anxiety than they had just the year before.

Anxiety is among the leading mental health disorders among Americans. Over 40 million (roughly 18% of the population) suffer from an anxiety disorder. While anxiety is treatable in many cases (with talk therapy and medication), nearly 37% of those diagnosed do not seek help.

Factors that Affect Prescription Drug Pricing in the United States

Whether it's a popular mental health drug like Abilify or a statin like Lipitor to manage high cholesterol and the risk of heart disease (a leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.), there's a long list of structural problems that make prescription drugs way more expensive in the United States than anywhere else in the world.

Lack of Regulation

Regulation is typically frowned upon when it comes to corporations and industries in the United States. In countries like Canada and member states of the European Union, regulations are considered a commonsense practice that ensure businesses play by the rules and engage in fair market practices. The vast majority of the time, these regulations are said to be in place to protect consumers and to allow greater access to important resources.

For example, the Canadian government regulates how much pharmaceutical companies can charge for prescription drugs — which helps control prices. In the United States, even necessary regulations are often seen as a burdensome and a politically motivated attack on a free market.

As we've seen in the U.S. — especially over the last decade — a lack of regulation on pharmaceutical companies is likely to inflate prices.

Healthcare as a Commodity

The fact that healthcare and prescription drugs are treated as just another commodity and high profit industry is arguably one of the biggest concerns that consumers seem to have in the United States health insurance system.

As too many Americans have learned over the last few years, big pharma profits take precedence over the health and safety of American lives. American citizens have experienced significant strife at the hands of an unregulated healthcare industry, from losing their life savings to going into debt and even dying from treatable conditions.

Monopoly Conditions

The patent system in the United States is structured in a way that gives pharmaceutical companies an advantage. Essentially, the law allows them to create a temporary monopoly. Patents on brand name drugs typically last for 20 years, at which point generic drugs are able to go into production, but even then, it takes years for generics to be formulated, tested, FDA-approved, and released to the public.

In the meantime, the pharmaceutical developer is able to reap all the benefits of being the only company able to profit from the drug, all while developing drugs that are in direct competition with their existing drugs to launch when the existing drug goes off patent. Furthermore, they're able to manipulate the market by keeping less expensive generic drugs off the market for years or even decades, and extending the life of patents for expensive brand name drugs by making minor changes to the formulation or method of production.

And to top it all off, pharmaceutical companies often artificially inflate prices prior to a generic drug entering the market. This often happens in the months leading up to a new generic drug release.

How Much Popular Mental Health Drugs Cost in the United States

There are many different mental health drugs available in the United States. Here are some of the most commonly prescribed drugs, and how much they cost when compared to a Canadian pharmacy or international one.

How Much Does Wellbutrin XL Cost?

Wellbutrin is a relatively common prescription antidepressant drug. While it tends to be covered by many insurance plans in the United States, coverage and costs vary considerably depending on the type of plan and level of coverage a consumer might have, among other things. The retail cash price for brand Wellbutrin XL can be as high as $140 for 30 tablets depending on the pharmacy where the prescription is filled.

By ordering Wellbutrin XL online from a certified Canadian international pharmacy website, Americans can save hundreds to thousands of dollars every year, where by contrast, a 90-pill prescription of brand Wellbutrin XL ranges from approximately $97 to $150. The generic is even less expensive.

How Much Does Lexapro Cost?

Lexapro is what's known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor and is prescribed to treat depression and anxiety. The average cash retail price for brand Lexapro 20mg 90-pills in the United States is approximately $1200.

At NorthWestPharmacy.com, the average cost of an 84-pill prescription of brand Lexapro 20mg is approximately $140.

How Much Does Effexor XR Cost?

Effexor is prescribed for common mental health issues like anxiety disorders and depression. The average cash retail price for Effexor XR 150mg is around $1600 for a 90-pill prescription in the United States. At an international pharmacy, the approximate price for a 84-pill prescription of Effexor XR 150mg is $166. By ordering Effexor XR online from an online pharmacy, Americans can pay about one-tenth for the same brand medication.

How Much Does Latuda Cost?

Latuda is an antipsychotic medication prescribed to treat mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Unlike common antidepressants which are still expensive by Canadian standards (but relatively low priced by American standards), a drug like Latuda has an average retail price of over $1,200 for 30 tablets in the USA, but can go as high as over $1,600. At an international pharmacy, the average price for 30 tablets of Latuda is $175.

How Much Does Cymbalta Cost?

Cymbalta is a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) that is often used to treat anxiety and depression, in addition to some nerve disorders.

This drug is considered to be "moderately" priced, starting off at about $515 for a 60-capsule supply of the 20mg brand.

At an international pharmacy, the average price of brand Cymbalta 20mg 84-pills is about $217.

How Much Does Geodon Cost?

Geodon is an antipsychotic that is often used to treat bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, as well as alleviate symptoms for people on the autism spectrum. Prices for brand Geodon start at about $1,300 for 60 capsules at the lowest dose, and $1,500 for the highest dose. Theoretically, this medication can also be sold in vials (and possibly for less money), but it's not as easy to find, and not everyone feels comfortable injecting themselves or their loved ones.

International pharmacies typically sell brand Geodon for about $120 for the lowest dose and up to about $200 for the highest dose for the exact same quantity.

How Much Does Seroquel Cost?

Seroquel is an “atypical” antipsychotic used to treat bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia. Atypical antipsychotics are believed to cause fewer, or less severe side effects than traditional antipsychotics.

Prices for Seroquel are on the lower end of the spectrum and range from $120 for 30 tablets at the lowest dose (25mg), and $580 at the highest (400mg). At international pharmacies, prices start closer to $40 and go up to $170 for comparable dosage and quantity.

How Much Does Saphris Cost?

Saphris is another atypical antipsychotic that is regularly used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This drug is more expensive than others on this list, starting off at $600 in a 30-tablet supply. At this time, there is no generic available for this medication.

At an international pharmacy, prices start at about $440 for a 60-tablet supply.

How Much Does Fluphenazine Cost?

This is one instance in which the brand name drugs are no longer in production and the generic is the only alternative. As such, this drug used to treat "disordered thoughts" is much more affordable, starting at just $15 for a 30-pill supply at the lowest dose (1mg), and ranging up to about $30 at the highest dose (10mg).

International pharmacies tend to sell this drug in larger quantities, so you may find a pack of 100 for about $26 for the lowest dose, and up to $45 for the highest dose.

How Much Does Invega Cost?

Invega is another atypical antipsychotic frequently used to treat schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia. The price of this drug is about $1,200 for a 30-pill supply at the lowest dose (1.5mg) and $1,800 for the highest dose (9mg).

International pharmacies start off at about $150 and go up to about $300 for comparable supplies.

We believe everyone should have access to safe and affordable medication and prescriptions. For more information about how to save money on your prescriptions by ordering online from a Canadian pharmacy and international drugstore, contact us today by calling our toll free number 1-866-539-5330 to discuss your needs with a dedicated customer service specialist.

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