(Bloomberg View) — The affordability of prescription drugs is a growing public concern, as annual drug spending continues to rise year after year. Recent pricing scandals, including the 6,000% increase in the pediatric muscular dystrophy drug Deflazacort, along with Martin Shkreli’s 5,000% increase in the toxoplasmosis treatment Daraprim, only fuel the public outcry.
On numerous occasions, President Donald Trump has vowed to take action to constrain drug prices. Although the specifics of Trump’s plans to lower prices are reportedly being hammered out as I write, the wrong action could have disastrous effects.
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Many of us remember the gas shortages of the 1970s due to price controls. Government price controls will almost certainly inadvertently produce price increases in some markets and drug shortages in others.
Equally as important, misguided interference could undercut the incentives necessary to support a vibrant life-sciences industry. America’s free-market system and investments in basic research through the National Institutes of Health and universities have created the world’s most dynamic innovation engine for medical research.
Government actions designed to lower prices could end up stifling this drug innovation, harming the very consumers the actions were intending to benefit. In my years as a professor and researcher, I have seen first hand what wrong-headed government policies can do to interfere with private market decision-making, and the results are rarely beneficial to the consumer. And in my work as a consultant to pharmaceutical clients over the years, I have found this to be especially true in the prescription-drug business.
As an alternative, Trump could use his deal-making skills to negotiate voluntary pricing restraints in the drug industry. Such restraints would reduce the distortionary effects that inevitably result when the government forces specific cost-control measures in areas that may not be the most efficient places to cut costs. Instead, voluntary pricing restraints would enable individual companies to determine the most effective ways to cut their costs to reduce aggregate drug spending.