Beyond the county: Medication prices on rise, Pope canonizes Junipero Serra |

Beyond the county: Medication prices on rise, Pope canonizes Junipero Serra

FILE - In this June 14, 2011 file photo, various prescription drugs move along the automated pharmacy assembly line at Medco Health Solutions in Willingboro, N.J. Patients and politicians have been voicing outrage since it became public this week that a small drug company bought rights to an old drug and quickly raised its price more than 5,000 percent. But such "price gouging," as some politicians and other critics call it, has happened increasingly over the last few years. It could become more common because of decreasing industry competition and other factors. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Pope canonizes 18th-century missionary; not everyone happy

WASHINGTON — In the first canonization on U.S. soil, Pope Francis has elevated to sainthood an 18th-century missionary who brought Catholicism to the American West Coast. Francis canonized Junipero Serra on Wednesday during a Mass in Washington. Serra was a Franciscan friar who marched north from Baja California with Spanish conquistadors, establishing nine of the 21 missions in California.

The canonization was polarizing. Serra is revered by Catholics for his missionary work, and many Latinos in the U.S. view his canonization as a badly needed acknowledgment of Hispanics’ role in the American church. But many Native Americans say Serra enslaved converts and contributed to the spread of disease that wiped out indigenous populations.

Fury over drug price spikes rising, but increases aren’t new

TRENTON, N.J. — Hillary Clinton was among the patients and politicians who voiced outrage this week after it became public that the price of a 62-year-old drug used to treat a life-threatening infection had been raised by more than 5,000 percent.

But exorbitant drug price hikes like that have happened increasingly over the last few years. And they could become even more common because of decreasing competition in the pharmaceutical industry, among other factors.

The issue was brought to light after a Sunday article on drug price increases by The New York Times.

The story featured Turing Pharmaceuticals, a startup that paid Impax Laboratories $55 million in August for rights to Daraprim. It’s the only approved treatment for a rare parasitic infection called toxoplasmosis that mainly strikes pregnant women, cancer patients and AIDS patients.

Turing’s CEO, former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, soon raised Daraprim’s price from $13.50 to $750 per pill.

The price increase evoked public outrage among some patients and industry groups. Hillary Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate, called the move “price gouging,” and then released proposals to address some aspects of rising drug prices.

Late Tuesday after the public outcry, Shkreli said he would reduce the price of Daraprim. A Turing spokesman told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Turing is committed to “a serious price adjustment,” but hasn’t decided how much or set a timetable.

But rising drug prices are likely to remain an issue for the industry. Here are some questions and answers on the subject:

Q: How can these price spikes happen?

A: Companies generally can charge what they want for approved drugs because the U.S. government doesn’t regulate medicine prices, as other countries do. The powerful pharmaceutical lobby has repeatedly fended off proposals that would cut into profits, from setting up price controls to allowing Medicare to negotiate discounts on drugs it buys for beneficiaries.

That means the primary check on medicine prices is large buyers — insurance companies, big hospital chains and group purchasing organizations that negotiate sizable discounts off the manufacturer’s wholesale price. That happens when several companies make the same generic drug or similar brand-name drugs. When patents on popular brand-name drugs expire, multiple generic versions usually go on sale within a year, and then the generics cost much less, as little as 10 percent of the brand-name drug’s price.

When there’s no competition, big buyers and payers can’t rein in prices.

Q: What’s triggering the latest price spikes?

A: For many generic drugs, industry consolidation has left only one or two companies making a particular medicine. That’s led to lengthy shortages for an increasing number of crucial medicines, driving up prices, particularly for drugs for infections, blood pressure and seizures. Even without shortages, prices have jumped tenfold or more for generics only made by one or two companies.

The Turing case highlights a recent trend in which a drugmaker buys a smaller one or just its rights to an old brand-name drug, intending to sharply increase the price, said Dr. Peter B. Bach, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

He said this works only when the drug is essential, there’s little or no competition and no good alternative medicine, and the number of potential patients is too small for a rival drugmaker to spend a few years and tens of millions of dollars to get Food and Drug Administration approval to sell the same drug.

Bach noted Canadian drugmaker Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. twice this year bought heart drugs and then hiked the price threefold or more. Other companies have used the same strategy, including for pain drugs.

“It’s all legal,” Bach said. “It is the worst kind of capitalization on the needs of the sick.”

Q: What’s the impact?

A: The higher prices initially mainly hit people paying out of pocket, said Rob Frankil, owner of Sellersville Pharmacy in southeastern Pennsylvania, who testified last fall at a congressional hearing about big increases in generic drug prices. Over time, the spikes affect the whole health system.

“We pay for it in the end,” through rising insurance premiums and deductibles, plus taxes that fund federal health programs, said Frankil, who now regularly sees patients, sticker-shocked by an increase, decide to go without their medication, ration it or switch to a cheaper, less-effective drug.

Q: What’s likely next?

A: Drug prices could well be a major issue in the presidential race, though proposals by Clinton and one of her Democratic opponents, Bernie Sanders, are unlikely to pass in the current Republican-controlled Congress. Most have been rejected previously. But the increasing outcry from patient groups may make industry CEOs hesitant to attempt such huge price increases.

California officials say pollution has decreased

SACRAMENTO — California officials say the concentration of seven cancer-causing pollutants dropped steeply between 1990 and 2012, and they believe tougher pollution rules are behind that.

The Sacramento Bee reports that the California Air Resources Board published the study in the Environmental Science & Technology journal this month.

It shows large declines in carcinogens like benzene, used in motor fuels and other products, and perchloethylene, which is used in dry cleaning.

Hundreds of millions in damage estimated in California fire

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. — California officials said Wednesday a wildfire burning north of South Francisco has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, but a final figure is still being determined.

Another body was found in the rubble in Lake County, bringing the death toll to six from that blaze and another in Northern California — two of the state’s more destructive wildfires in recent memory. Also Wednesday, authorities said a man’s suicide was involved in the start of a separate fire that destroyed 12 homes south of San Francisco.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said the Lake County fire destroyed 1,900 structures, including 1,238 homes, and left 3,000 people homeless. It has charred 118 square miles.

Lake County sheriff’s officials said they discovered the remains in the hard-hit Cobb area and believe they belong to Robert Taylor Fletcher, 66, who was last seen Sept. 16. His home was destroyed.

The coroner has not confirmed the identity.

Officials said Robert Litchman, 61, from the Seigler Canyon area, was still missing.

Three other people have been found dead in the rubble of the Lake County blaze.

Two bodies were found inside homes destroyed in another wildfire about 170 miles southeast, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. That fire has charred 110 square miles.

The two fires continue burning, but cooler weather and some rain have helped firefighters gain ground, and both are more than 80 percent contained.

Meanwhile, authorities in Monterey County said a man’s suicide was involved in the start of a wildfire that destroyed 12 homes and eight small buildings and prompted evacuations near the small town of Jamesburg, 140 miles south of San Francisco.

The Monterey County Sheriff’s Department said firefighters found the body near the fire’s ignition point.

The sheriff’s department declined to release the cause of death or other details on how the fire started Saturday, saying an investigation continues. The man’s identity wasn’t disclosed.

That fire has burned a little more than a square mile since it started about 30 miles east of the coastal city of Monterey. Firefighters say it’s 81 percent contained.

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