A recent important story in The Wall Street Journal documented a disturbing trend affecting patient care and the cost of healthcare — the practice of pharmaceutical companies raising prices on life-saving drugs simply because they can. 

No one denies these companies’ right to earn a healthy profit for their shareholders. But, in the compassionate and just society we strive toward, maximizing profits in the short run should be tempered by promoting the health of individuals and communities in the long term. In the end, this shortsighted strategy of massive price increases could backfire on pharmaceutical companies, healthcare providers, and most importantly, on patients. 


At Ascension, our focus is and will continue to be on providing quality healthcare to all persons, with special attention to those who are poor and vulnerable. However, providing that quality care has become increasingly difficult as a result of pharmaceutical company practices that have produced soaring drug prices, ostensibly to fund research and innovation.  

Two very recent examples are the 525 percent price increase for Nitropress, used in hospitals to treat people found to have life-threatening high blood pressure, and the 212 percent price increase for patients experiencing heart rhythm issues who need Isuprel during their hospital stay.  

Nitropress and Isuprel are just two drugs that do not currently have a safer, low-cost alternative available, and are not close to going off-patent, which would mean the availability of lower-cost generic alternatives. Together, those two drugs alone have increased Ascension’s costs by more than $8 million just this year.  

Even a major purchaser like Ascension, with more than 130 hospitals across the country, cannot indefinitely continue to absorb these often unexpected and arbitrary price hikes. Something has to give -- and we cannot let it be those we serve in our hospitals and other sites of care across the country. 

Pharmaceutical companies are well aware of this, and take advantage of the situation by raising prices beyond what could be considered reasonable in relation to their investment in developing or acquiring those types of medications. Realizing that hospitals and health systems such as Ascension are committed to providing the same quality care despite escalating drug costs, some drug companies have put short-term profits ahead of longer-term benefits to society that will have a greater impact on the overall economic – and physical – health of the nation. 

These drastic price increases threaten the economic wellbeing of hospitals and the safety of patients. They squeeze the hospitals’ ability to invest in making patient care even safer. Instead of using our already stretched resources to expand access and better serve our patients, Ascension will pay millions of dollars in unexpected drug costs in 2015 alone. 

Eventually these spikes will also increase out-of-pocket expenses for our patients – who are often found to be the most poor and vulnerable in the first place – and raise health insurance premiums for all.  

While pharmaceutical companies certainly are entitled to an increase in their margins, we need to tip the scales back in favor of our most marginalized to ensure they continue to receive the best care they can. Certainly, these drastic price increases reinforce the need for Congress to maintain discounted drugs for the poor and vulnerable. In addition, some state legislators across the country are demanding that drug makers be more transparent about their price hikes by disclosing their costs. Ascension encourages drug manufacturers, healthcare providers, legislators, and regulators to work together to ensure medications are available and affordable for all who need them.

Henkel, FACHE, is executive vice president of Ascension, and president and chief executive officer of Ascension Health.