Washington, D.C. — A recent proposal by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calls for pharmaceutical companies to display drugs’ list prices in their TV commercials. If passed, this could incite a profound shift in America, one of the only two countries in the world that permits drug companies to perform direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing. Unlike other major industries, pharma, in America, still devotes its most expensive ad campaigns to TV, but these new regulations may mean that’s about to change. 

The list prices of many drugs tend to be even higher than many people with insurance realize, as such patients usually benefit from the significant discounts afforded by their coverage. With prescription-drug prices already feverishly contested, an additional spotlight on sometimes-surprising list prices may not only reinvigorate public pushback, but it may unfortunately dissuade many prospective patients from seeking out the treatments they need. 

Key takeaways from the new set of rules, which apply only to drugs covered by Medicare and Medicaid, include a requirement that the list price be printed in text, rather than relayed via voiceover. It should be “placed appropriately” against a “contrasting background” and shown for a “sufficient duration of time” for it to be “read easily.” List prices are to be based on a 30-day supply or typical course of treatment. Drugs with list prices under $35 are exempt.

According to Sam Cannizzaro from Syneos Health, "We are moving away from the old way in which specialty pharmaceutical manufacturers thought they had to only talk to the health insurers and the physicians, and then they would drive it to the patients. I think that model is evolving."

Through the trade group Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the industry has negotiated to amend the new regulations, which are currently in a 60-day comment period and, if finalized, will take effect 30 days later. One way that PhRMA envisions drug companies sidestepping the price-disclosing requirement is by directing viewers to their websites, which will provide pricing information, rather than broadcasting prices right on the TV screen. 

Even if this counter-effort fails—in which case televised drug commercials will become longer and thus costlier, and likely less efficacious productions—it seems clear that pharma will be compelled to embrace digital marketing efforts like never before. 

Why This Matters

Pharmaceutical companies will be directing more and more consumers to their respective websites, where marketers will have to be innovative and thoughtful about how they disclose list prices. 

Drug prices are complicated, and the average consumer may understandably grow confused or disheartened amid their pre-treatment research. It has been suggested that infographics and other visual breakdowns of pricing information may represent the best means of connecting patients with their needed therapies. 

A new study suggests that digital ads are, in fact, more effective than TV ads at moving patients to ask their doctor about a prescription drug. 

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.