How to Lower Prescription Drug Costs

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I have an idea about how to lower prescription drug costs and save millions (if not billions) of wasted dollars.

I know how to decrease confusion and eliminate much of the unnecessary anxiety related to prescription drugs. And I know how to decrease the cost of prescription drugs for individuals. How?

Pass a law to make it illegal for drug companies to advertise directly to consumers.

The Paradox of the American Health Care Consumer

I find many of my patients resistant to any drug therapy whatsoever – even if it will prolong their life and reduce their risk of chronic diseases or catastrophic events like a heart attacks or strokes. Yet direct-to-consumer advertising sells these very same patients medications they do not need for conditions they do not have and they come to the office actually asking for them by name. And what do the drug companies get out of it? Billions and billions of dollars from blockbuster drugs is what.

Drug companies didn’t begin marketing to consumers until the 1980s. Before that they marketed only the health care professionals – mostly doctors. Today, however, drug companies’ goal is to get patients to ask for a drug – whether they need it or not – because it’s more profitable for the drug companies that way. In the old days they had to convince and then wait for prescribers to decide to use a drug. The only way to create a blockbuster drug is to get people asking for it who don’t even need it. This is a corner of the health care system that really needs reformed but I haven’t heard of any plans to do it.

The Cost of Blockbuster Drugs and Direct-to-Consumer Drug Advertising

The October 2009 AARP Bulletin printed a list of the 50 Most Prescribed Drugs in 2008 and their cost at the pharmacy. They pointed out that prescription drugs account for 10% of the nation’s total health care costs. And though brand name drugs (versus cheaper generics) make up only 22% of the top 50 drugs they account for 62% of the total expense. The total cost of prescriptions drugs in 2008 was 53.2 billion according to AARP.

A recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition reported that drug companies are spending $4 billion a year on direct-to-consumer advertising. NPR reported that Neilson (the company that does TV ratings) estimates there is an average of 80 drug ads every hour on TV. Can you imagine the money that’s costing? But given the money the drug companies are raking in, to them it’s worth it. It’s we consumers who can’t afford it!

The problem as I see it is that the more they spend on direct-to-consumer advertising the more they have to rake in to cover their advertising costs. And how do they do that? Higher drug prices, of course.

Compare Brand Name Drug Costs with Generic Equivalents

Here are just a few comparisons from the AARP Top 50 List with the total cost of brand name drugs (listed first) versus their equivalent generics (listed second). Notice how many extra billions are flowing back to the drug companies just in these few examples.

Cholesterol Lowering Medication:

Lipitor: $5.88 billion (for 49 million prescriptions)
Simvastatin: $1.45 billion (for 60 million prescriptions)

Reflux/Heartburn Medication:

Nexium: $4.79 billion (for 27 million prescriptions)
Omeprazole: $1.15 billion (for 29 million prescriptions)

Depression Medication:

Lexapro: $2.41 billion (for 26 million prescriptions)
Sertraline: $648 million (for 30 million prescritions)

High Blood Pressure Medication:

Diovan: $1.28 billion (for 16 million prescriptions)
No generic equivalent in this drug class

Blood Thinner Medication:

Plavix: $3.80 billion (for 25 million prescriptions)
Warfarin; $317 million (for 23 million prescriptions)

Are Drug Companies Serving the Public or Serving Themselves?

Finding the right medication for a patient involves correctly diagnosing their condition, knowing their medical history, knowing their drug tolerances and intolerances and then choosing a medication that accomplishes three things:

  1. Does not cause side effects.
  2. Acheives the desired therapeutic effect.
  3. Is affordable.

The drug companies argue, “We need these profits for research and development or else we won’t be able to find new cures.” Here’s what I think. I think if they put a complete halt to direct-to-consumer advertising they could use part of the $4 billion they are now spending on advertising to make brand named drugs more affordable. Then they could use the rest to get back to what should be their core business – finding new drugs and new cures. I think they should get out of the advertising business and back into the pharmaceutical business.

Anybody out there agree with me?

This information is offered for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, prescribe or treat. For that please seek direct care from a health professional.

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