US prices rises for brand-name prescription drugs rose 9.7% in the 12 months ending March 2010, against general inflation which was nearly flat (0.3%), says a leading advocacy group.

The analysis, by seniors’ group AARP, found that price increases for branded drugs most commonly used by people enrolled in the federal Medicare programme (which provides health care for seniors and some disabled people) were the highest since the group began tracking prescription drug price changes in 2002.

Price increases for specialty drugs were almost as high, at 9.2% over the period, while the prices of generics fell 9.7%, the group adds. Therefore, the average annual cost of therapy for someone taking three generic medications decreased by $51 during the 12-month period, in marked contrast to the $706 increase experienced by a person taking three brand-name medicines, it notes.

The prices of all 25 of the top-selling branded prescription drugs rose during the period, and those increasing by more than 10% - as measured by their Wholesale Acquisition Cost (WAC) - are: - Boehringer Ingelheim’s prostatic hypertrophy agent Flomax (tamsulosin) 0.4mg capsules, up 27.6%; - AstraZeneca’s antipsychotic Seroquel (quetiapine fumarate) 200mg tablet, 15.6%; - Eisai’s antidementia drug Aricept (donepezil) 10 mg tab, 13.9%; - Sanofi-Aventis’ sedative Ambien (Zolpidem) 10mg tab, 13.9%; - GlaxoSmithKline’s diabetes drug Avandia (rosiglitazone) 4mg tab, 11.6%; - Merck & Co/Schering-Plough’s cholesterol-lowerer Zetia (exetimibe)10mg tab, 10.8%; and - Bristol-Myers Squibb’s anticoagulant Plavix (clopidogrel) 75mg tab, 10.5%.

“The life-saving drugs Americans need are out of reach for many because of unjustifiable price hikes,” said AARP executive vice president John Rother. “Affordable medication can make the difference between a healthy lifestyle and a costly trip to the hospital. Consumers desperately need a competitive prescription drug market that balances the need for innovation with access to less costly medicines,” he added.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) commented that the AARP study was based on incomplete information, as it had not included the discounts and rebates which are generally negotiated between drugmakers and payers.

Last month, pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) Express Scripts reported that US prices of branded medicines within the traditional therapy classes rose 9.1% last year compared to a 7.4% rise in 2008, while for specialty drugs the increase was 11.5%, up from 2008’s advance of 9.4%. “Drug-price inflation for branded products was the single most important factor driving up cost/unit in 2009,” according to the PBM’s latest annual Drug Trend Report.

And in January, a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that, during 2000-2008, 416 brand-name medicines representing 321 different brands had experienced “extraordinary” price rises, mainly ranging between 100%-499%. During this period the number of such increases more than doubled every year, said the government investigators, who concluded that limited competition and a lack of therapeutically-equivalent drugs could be contributing to “extraordinary price rises” for branded medicines in the US.