Patients who rely on life-saving medications are in for another year of sticker shock. American’s spent close to $132 billion on prescription drugs, up nearly 20% from the year before.
Although insurance helps pick up the tab for most patients, the costs are likely to trickle down in higher premiums and a greater use of copayments tied to a sliding scale. Many health plans now have customers shell out more money if they want pricier drugs.
“For your average upper-middle-class person, the costs aren’t that much,” says Steve Findlay, MPH, who helped tally up these numbers in report for the National Institute for Health Care Management. “But for patients on a fixed income, it could be mean a big difference.”
Much of the jump has to do with more patients needing drugs. There were close to 2.9 billion prescriptions filled last year, which accounted for about 42% of the higher costs. This is not going to change, experts says, since American’s keep getting older on average, requiring more and more treatments to stay healthy.
But some see possible savings if doctors and patients question whether the latest “breakthrough” is always the best. Approximately 36% of the higher costs were based on patients switching from regular drugs to newer, more expensive ones. In fact, 23 medications out of nearly 10,000 drugs on the market made up half of the increase in spending. Heavily promoted new drugs on the block, such as Vioxx and Celebrex for arthritis, Liptior to lower cholesterol, Prevacid for ulcers, and the narcotic painkiller, OxyContin, topped the list.
In some cases, like with the new cholesterol-lowering drugs, there are clear advantages over older treatments. But not always. Head-to-head studies are rare, leaving doctors and patients to guess about a new drug’s ultimate value.
“The fact is that anybody can make any conjecture they want, but we don’t have very objective, sound information to give us answers,” say Stanley Wallack, PhD, of Brandeis University, who has also studied drug pricing issues. So are patients paying more for new-fangled drugs than they should?
“Vioxx and Celebrex are sort of the poster boys for that question,” says Findlay. These two painkillers were meant to help arthritis sufferers who were at a high risk for ulcers, but their dramatic sales records suggest that patients are trying them for conditions where the benefits are less clear-cut. Ultimately, it’s up to researchers to figure out what works best.
“But,” adds Findlay, cautioning that he can’t conclude one way or the other: “This report raises questions if some drugs are worth the money.” Vioxx and Celebrex cost nearly three times as much as standard arthritis treatments.
Even older drugs were more expensive in the year 2000, which rounds out the dramatic rise in drug spending. To save costs, look for generic equivalents and shop around.
“Surprisingly, you can find various prices from pharmacy to pharmacy, even in the same neighborhood,” says Findlay.
Article By: Eric Sabo, Medical Writer