Pharma Promises Price Reductions


An $80 billion deal to help reduce out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries has elicited mixed reactions on what it might mean for patients, as well as calls for hospitalists to remain vigilant about prescription drug expenses.

Under a pledge negotiated with the White House and congressional Democrats, the pharmaceutical industry has promised a 50% discount for name-brand drugs to beneficiaries stuck in the notorious gap of the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, commonly called the “doughnut hole.” In 2009, the gap in coverage kicks in after $2,700 in total drug costs and persists until $6,154 in total costs, by which point patients have spent as much as $4,350 of their own money for prescription drugs.

President Obama says the gap “has been placing a crushing burden on many older Americans who live on fixed incomes and can’t afford thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses.” The AARP hails the “unique solution” as a “major step forward,” though other industry observers have taken a more circumspect stance and said they want to see tougher cost-control measures in writing.

“You don’t want to look an $80 billion gift horse in the mouth, but there’s some halitosis in this mouth,” says Bill Vaughan, a health policy analyst for Consumers Union in Washington, D.C. “It’s not as pure and altruistic as it seems at first blush, and people need to keep pushing for generics because these [brand-name drugs] are grossly overpriced.”

The deal includes several caveats: The pledge doesn’t address the cost of brand-name drugs before or after the coverage gap, and the doughnut-hole price reduction would go into effect only if Congress enacts healthcare reform legislation.

William D. Atchley Jr., MD, FACP, FHM, says hospitalists need to know what’s available in the hospital pharmacy and maintain an open line of communication with their patients in terms of their access and ability to pay for prescriptions.

“You need to understand patients’ economic status. You need to know if they get their medications from Walmart or the VA hospital pharmacy,” says Dr. Atchley, chief of the division of hospital medicine for Sentara Medical Group in Norfolk, Va., and a member of SHM’s Public Policy Committee. “Cost is an issue to our Medicare patients, and it’s important to collaborate with them to make sure they can afford the drug. If they can’t, you need to work with them to find another affordable drug that will provide the same benefit.”

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