It's not surprising that pharmaceutical firms number among the Fortune 500's wealthiest and most powerful companies. American consumers -- and overwhelmingly, seniors -- are footing the bill for their fat profits. Need proof? This April, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reported that 195 brand-name prescription drugs rose in price by an average of 7.1% in 2004 -- compared with a general inflation rate of only 2.7%. Unfortunately, steep price hikes are nothing new with Big Pharma. This is the fifth year in a row that manufacturers' wholesale list prices for brand-name prescription drugs have outstripped inflation. Since 1999, the average wholesale price of more than 150 popular drugs rose by 35.1%, nearly three times the 13.5% inflation rate over the same period. According to the AARP, of the 195 brand-name drug prices tracked in 2004...
*143 rose by more than 5%.
*46 rose by 7.6% to 10%.
*35 increased by 10% to 15%.
*Eight rose by more than 15%.
*Only one drug price -- Prilosec 20 mg -- did not change.
Generic Drugs: Still a Relative Bargain
The AARP also monitored the prices of 75 generic drugs. The good news is that these rose by an average of only 0.5%, with only nine outpacing inflation. This means that generics still represent a relatively good deal for consumers. What is driving the dramatic leap in brand-name prices? One constant factor is that when drug patents expire after 18 years, pharmaceutical manufacturers face stiffer competition from lower-priced generic drugs. This means that for the period when patents still are in place, companies work hard to make as much money as possible, raising prices as high as the market will bear. But with the new Medicare benefit for seniors about to kick in in January 2006, drug companies have a strong additional motivation. According to Marshel D. Davis, an assistant professor in the health sciences department at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, it is obvious that pharmaceutical manufacturers are upping their prices in anticipation of the drug discount cards slated to be distributed soon to all older Americans. While Medicare claims that the new cards will give senior citizens discounts of 11.5% to 17% off average retail drug prices, he says that by January 2006, brand-name prescription drug prices are apt to have risen so much that they will cancel out any real benefit. Not only will seniors continue to pay a lot for their drugs -- all taxpayers will watch their hard-earned money wasted through this pricing abuse. It is frustrating that we can't directly challenge the Pharma companies on their policies. But there are steps you can take to undercut their efforts...
*Whenever possible, ask your physician to prescribe less expensive generic drugs. A list of all FDA-approved drugs and their generic equivalents can be found at www.fda.gov/cder/obdefault.htm.
*All things being equal, ask your physician to prescribe older, less expensive drugs. (An added benefit here is that older drugs generally have a longer track record for safety.)
*Ask your doctor to prescribe higher-strength tablets and use a pill splitter (not a regular kitchen knife) to split them in half. NOTE: Not all prescriptions are candidates for pill splitting. Do not do this with capsules, enteric-coated pills or timed-release preparations.
*Ask your physician to write 90-day rather than 30-day prescriptions. You may want to check with your insurance company first, but often the co-pay is the same for a 30- or 90-day supply.
*Shop around. Compare prescription drug prices among different pharmacies in your area. Also investigate on-line alternatives, which can be as much as 20% to 50% less expensive because of their lower overhead. Reliable on-line pharmacies include Medco (www.medco.com) and Express Scripts (www.expressscripts.com).
*Look into pharmaceutical companies' lower-cost drug programs. For example, 10 drug manufacturers have banded together to offer discounted savings on more than 275 brand-name drugs in the Together Rx Access Card Program. For details, visit www.TogetherRxAccess.com or call 800-444-4106.
*For a list of state pharmacy assistance programs, visit the Web site of the National Conference of State Legislatures at www.ncsl.org/programs/health/drugaid.htm. Programs vary state by state, but often there are special discount programs for low-income seniors, the disabled and/or low-income people without insurance who are not eligible for Medicaid.
*Look for "special discounts" that may apply to groups of people who fall into the new "pre-disease" category/market. In order to encourage broader prescription and utilization of drugs, new studies are looking into prescribing medications for conditions that show indications of developing. Under the label of wellness medicine, we now see pre-hypertension, pre-diabetes, pre-high cholesterol and pre-obesity, which the pharma companies are "treating" with drugs. Often, before insurers reimburse for the "pre-condition" perscription, samples are made available to test the efficacy of the pharmaceutical. While premedicating for a condition has its supporters and detractors, you may be able to qualify for free samples nonetheless.
To learn more about the upcoming changes, visit www.medicare.gov or call 800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227).
Above all else, look at your lifestyle. Are there things you can do to make yourself healthier through proper nutrition, exercise, good sleep and the elimination of cigarettes and excess alcohol? By creating a healthier environment for your body, you may reduce your need for one or more drugs or at least lower your need for them, as a diabetic friend of mine recently learned. She cut her use of Glucovance from three times per day to one time per day simply by eating a healthier diet and exercising regularly. What can you do?