Prescription for Trouble?

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According to a new survey, most Americans think their doctor is more loyal to big drug companies than individual patients. But some new innovations are on the way. In the meantime, we have some tips for saving money without sacrificing your health.

When their doctor writes them a prescription, more than two-thirds of Americans feel a bit queasy. Or so implies a new Consumer Reports survey that shows 69 percent of those currently taking prescription medications think their doctor is in cahoots with big drug companies.

The survey of 1,150 adults makes some bold claims…

Sixty-nine percent, of consumers surveyed said they think drugmakers have too much influence on doctors’ decisions about which drug to prescribe. Half of those polled said they feel doctors are too eager to prescribe a drug rather than consider alternate methods of managing a condition. … A whopping 81 percent said they are concerned about the rewards drugmakers give to doctors who write a lot of prescriptions for a company’s drugs.

Are they right? Well, despite most businesses suffering in this recession, “overall U.S. pharmaceutical sales continue to grow,” said this industry report last month. Look at these total sales numbers for the top 500 prescription drugs…

  • 2007: $354 billion
  • 2008: $397 billion
  • 2009: $423 billion

Saving without suffering

So how can you take back some of those dollars? Consumer Reports recommends the obvious: Ask about generic drugs. But as we wrote about a few months ago, there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing that…

Word your request to save money carefully. Instead of asking, “Can I get this in a generic?” ask, “Is there a generic medication that treats this condition?” Although there might not be a generic equivalent for the original drug, there may be a less costly alternative that also treats the condition.

Also, realize that those free drug samples aren’t really free in the long run. Sure, your doctor will dip into his drawer and hand you a bunch now, but those samples are usually for the newest and most expensive brand-name drugs – and once the freebies are gone, you’ll be forced to pay full price.

A University of Chicago Medical Center report actually tallied up the cost: Patients spent $166 out of pocket for the six months prior to getting free samples – but $244 during the six months in which they received free samples. And after the samples ran out, they still paid more: $212 over the next six months.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore the doctor’s orders. Consumer Reports says 12 percent of those surveyed had tried to save money by taking an expired medication, while 4 percent had shared a prescription with someone else. Even worse, 16 percent simply didn’t get their prescriptions filled.

New solutions

Thankfully, both the government and private business realize there’s a problem. In ways big and small, they’re taking action…

BenefitsCheckUp is a free online screening service from the National Council on Aging (NCOA). It helps low-income seniors with various benefits programs, including prescription drugs.

Walgreens recently announced Pharmacy Chat, which allows its customers to “chat” online with a pharmacist about prescription and over-the-counter drugs – including discussions about price. That’s a much more relaxed environment than standing at a counter, asking questions while other customers are lined up behind you.

Health insurance company Humana has added a third state to fall under its CarePrescribe program. Kentucky this month joins Florida and Texas in allowing doctors to use what it calls “e-prescribing technology.” Doctors get a handheld device that links to a computer and makes it easier to, among other things, find generic equivalents and even digitally send the prescription to a mail-order pharmacy. “There is a tremendous opportunity to reduce medication errors, improve medication adherence, and impact overall costs,” says William Fleming, vice president of Humana Pharmacy Solutions.

The federal government’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is embarking on what one expert calls “potentially industry-changing” – hiring someone to compile a “Survey of Retail Prices, Payment and Utilization Rates, and Performance Rankings.” What’s that mean? According to drug industry consultant Adam J. Fein

This survey will gather data on both retail pharmacy prices as well as the prices paid by pharmacies to wholesalers or manufacturers. Plus, CMS intends to post these data on its website. Translation: The whole wide world will have transparency to drug prices and costs.

And that could lead to easier comparison shopping and lower prices.

Stacy Johnson

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