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Rise of 'lifestyle' drugs straining health costs

As more Americans use more drugs, taxpayers may pick up a major tab.

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Anyone who reads a newspaper or watches TV commercials knows that the pharmaceutical industry ushers in dozens of new drugs each year.

Some are "lifesavers" that battle AIDS. But many are a more controversial set called "lifestyle" drugs that mellow out a fidgety kid or promise a good night's sleep.

As more Americans purchase more of these wonder drugs - some of which can cost $10 a pill - the rising costs are taxing an already strained health-care system. Last year, employers and health-care providers saw their health-care costs rise by 5.2 percent - much of that attributable to the rise in prescription-drug costs.

With baby boomers entering their autumn years, and with plenty of discoveries in the patent pipeline, the trend of higher drug costs - and growing dependence on lifestyle drugs - is just beginning. It's a trend with important implications for the nation - for businesses that are scrambling to pay employee medical benefits, and for taxpayers, who may ultimately pay the health-care costs of those who fall between the cracks.

Many pharmaceutical companies say higher costs are just part of the price of medical research and innovation. Yet some pundits warn of unintended social consequences, from inadequate care for the poor to the overmedication of the rich.

"The cost pressures are going to be very difficult for America," says Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Especially hard hit will be elderly Americans who rely on Medicare, which doesn't cover prescription-drug costs. Congress will fine-tune Medicare this fall, but Congress "tends to have difficulty discussing this issue," Mr. Aaron adds, so it may take some time to meet the needs of the underprivileged.

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