Policymakers on both ends of the political spectrum have been looking for ways to reduce prescription drug prices. Democrats have also been working on expanding healthcare coverage, including different versions of Medicare for All. All these proposals have been framed as issues of access and spending. If innovation incentives come up at all, it has primarily been because pharmaceutical companies claim that reducing drug prices will threaten innovation by lowering the returns from their patents.
In fact, however, pharmaceutical access and innovation incentives are intimately related. Health insurance can change the structure of market demand. And Medicare in particular does so in a way that gives a very large subsidy to patented drugs, such that current U.S. pharmaceutical profits are often higher than they would be in an unsubsidized market. Medicare reimbursement rules thus can lead to greater-than-monopoly pricing of patented drugs, dramatically expanding the incentive U.S. policy provides to pharmaceutical companies. By not recognizing the Medicare innovation subsidy, policymakers have ignored one of the largest sources of innovation incentives. That extra incentive might be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how much incentive pharmaceutical developers need. It may well be good for some classes of drugs and bad for others. But it is important for policymakers to understand how access policies like Medicare also serve as innovation incentives. This extra innovation subsidy may open the policy space for hybrid proposals that combine expanded government insurance like Medicare for All with lower drug prices while preserving or even increasing current returns to innovation.