The U.S. is renowned for health care innovation, and new medications, devices and techniques have revolutionized standard practices many times over in the last quarter century. However, newfangled technologies have a price. Portland-based HemCon Medical Technologies, for example, developed a novel type of bandage formulated using the substance chitosan, derived from shrimp, which rapidly stops bleeding on the battlefield and beyond. The fact that HemCon became Oregon's biggest corporate bankruptcy of 2012 after being sued for patent infringement illustrates that stakes are high in health care technology. Companies spend many years developing products, investing millions, awaiting FDA approval and fending off litigation. So if and when brand-name drugs or medical devices finally hit the market, prices must be inflated way above manufacturing costs to cover all the R&D, marketing and intellectual property fees before patents run out or the technology becomes obsolete.
These demands fuel medical inflation. In 2012, Portland-Salem’s consumer price index (CPI) for medical care was 262 points above CPI for all other items, and it has greatly surpassed U.S. medical care CPI since 2007. Prescription drugs are one of the fastest growing among medical care CPI components, and Oregonians have been heavier-than-average drug consumers. In 2011, Oregonians per capita filled 13.3 retail prescription drugs at pharmacies, versus 12.1 across the county, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Health care companies will continue to face battles bringing products to market, and it’s unlikely patients’ hunger for better drugs and technologies will be sated anytime soon. But if consumers can become more cognizant of the costs of their care — even as an employer or insurance company foots the bill — they might aid its cost-effectiveness.