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Helping Americans Get The Truth About Prescription Drug Savings
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Specialty Drugs Are Not the Stuff of $4 Generic Drug Programs

Specialty drugs have been in the news for their exorbitant prices lately. Gilead Sciences’ Hepatitis C cure Sovaldi has received media exposure for costing $84,000 and in 2012, when Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center refused to use the colon cancer medication Zaltrap because of its $11,000 a month price, the manufacturer responded by offering discounts of 50%. Will these high prices come way down once the medications go generic?

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, examined costs and utilization of specialty drugs (specifically cancer meds) as generic versions are introduced. Generally, prices for generic drugs drop as more manufacturers produce them due to price competition. This should presumably happen for specialty drugs, but there’s a catch. Many specialty drugs have a small user base and some of them are formulated as solutions or injection, which may require more specialized and expensive manufacturing processes compared to traditional oral drugs (i.e pills, liquids). For those reason, the drugs price discrepancy between brands and generics is not as great among specialty medications compared to regular medications.

The study didn’t analyze the best way to actually pay for these medications. But a recent analysis by HealthPocket took a look at Obamacare plans and specialty meds. Check that out here. We are still researching paying for specialty drugs and will have our own analysis and tips for saving at some point in the future.

Keep in mind that over time specialty drugs, such as Sovaldi, will go generic in the U.S. and be prices considerably lower than the brand. But unlike many pills for high blood pressure, depression, or cholesterol, you won’t find $4 Zaltrap at your local Rite-Aid anytime soon.

I wish I had a more concrete answer and analysis on the prices and access to specialty meds. It’s something that we here at PharmacyChecker.com are keeping an eye on, and we will certainly have updates in the future.

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Specialty Medications Breaking the Bank; Online Options are Limited

A few weeks back we wrote about drug affordability problems related to high deductible Obamacare silver plans. A new report finds problems across all four tiers for patients requiring expensive specialty drugs. Many plans have co-insurance rather than a fixed co-pay for these medications, which means patients pay a percentage of a drug’s price rather than a flat fee. In fact, over 50% of bronze, silver, and gold plans studied had co-insurance rather than fixed co-pays for specialty drugs. That compares to only 38% for platinum plans.

According to Wellmark, “Specialty drugs are prescription medications that require special handling, administration or monitoring. These drugs are used to treat complex, chronic and often costly conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis C, and hemophilia.”

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Pamela Morris, of Zitter Health Insights, said “A lot of times, if someone has coinsurance their first exposure to OOP [out of pocket costs] is at the pharmacy, where they may be unsure if they’ve met their deductible or if the costs are purely coinsurance.”

So how big could this price shock be? Let’s look at Tecfidera, a sample oral Multiple Sclerosis drug. The cash price is around $6,000 for 60 capsules of the 120 mg dose. Even if your co-insurance is 25%, that’s $1,500. You can purchase the same amount for $1,200 from an international online pharmacy. Still expensive, but a $300 savings is nothing to scoff at. And it’s likely that the co-pay would be even more than 25% in which case the international savings could be much higher.

 

Gleevec, a medication used to treat certain types of leukemia, is around $29,000 for 90 pills. That will cost you $7,500 if your co-insurance is only 25%. Using an international online pharmacy, you can purchase 90 pills of generic Gleevec for $725 from a Canadian pharmacy. This may even be cheaper than using Novartis’s patient assistance program for brand name Gleevec. The program has strict eligibility requirements but is worth pursuing if you believe you’re eligible.

We’re sorry to report that many specialty meds may not be safe to order from an international online pharmacy. Some might be extremely temperature sensitive, others are administered in a clinical setting, only sold by specialty pharmacies, and some aren’t even approved for sale outside the U.S. For some specialty drugs, the savings might not even be that great, as prices are high globally!

We promise to research all avenues of savings for these medications and report back to you soon…

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Obamacare Silver Plans Often Fall Short on Pharmacy Benefits

A new report shows that out-of-pocket prescription costs may be twice as high for plans created by the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, than traditional employer plans. This burden falls on patients with high deductibles who must pay out-of-pocket for 100% of their costs until they hit their deductible, which tends to be around $2,000 for Silver plans.

That isn’t to say these new plans are bad; preventative care is usually covered for free and can sometimes stave off the need for medications in the first place. The problem will usually hit hardest on those who depend on medications for a chronic condition. However, unforeseen medical issues could throw anyone into this cost predicament.

The goal of the Affordable Care Act was to make healthcare, well, affordable, and it won’t be for people who cannot afford drugs because of weak pharmacy benefits. The report also showed that Silver plans have higher co-insurance and co-pay rates than typical employer-sponsored plans.

If you’re finding yourself facing a high deductible, and generic alternatives at your local pharmacy are not available, you might consider an online pharmacy. You can save up to 90% on brand name medication from verified international pharmacies.

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Will Mainers Start to Import More Drugs in Light of Mainecare Cuts

A couple of news articles from the state of Maine have me wondering if more Mainers are going to start importing medication from international online pharmacies. Maine is the only state that has, through the passage of a law, removed state restrictions on personal drug importation from pharmacies in a number of countries.

An article from the Sun Journal highlights a survey designed to track the impact of the Affordable Care Act in Maine (and perhaps these findings will apply to other states, too). Both low and middle-income Maine adults are struggling with medical bills. Surprisingly, 35% of middle-income adults had problems paying bills, compared to 32% of low-income adults. Budget cuts in the state have led to thousands of residents losing Medicaid coverage, so it is likely that the numbers will worsen for low-income adults.

Speaking of budget cuts, Maine Governor Paul LePage did not choose to expand another state program, Mainecare, which helps low-income residents pay healthcare providers. Samantha Edwards, writing for WLBZ, notes that residents who were in these programs are now looking elsewhere for assistance, especially for prescription drugs. The cuts to state programs are forcing municipalities to cover the costs. Rindy Folger, of Bangor Health and Community Services, said, “Since January 1st, we have seen over seventy-five people who we have never seen before who are now coming in looking for help with their medications…Monthly right now we are paying about $9,500 in prescriptions which, over the course of the year, is a significant amount of money for the Bangor taxpayers to have to pay.”

If municipalities like Bangor are going to be picking up the tab for medication, it might be wise for them (or the state) to implement prescription drug importation programs. Portland saved $200,000 a year on health care when it served prescriptions to its employees through PortlandMeds, a prescription drug importation program. It’s very possible – and reasonable – that more municipalities will implement these programs if the Maine’s healthcare cuts continue.

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Struggling To Afford Meds, Americans Spend More On Drugs than Other Countries

As recently reported by PBS, America continues to outspend other rich countries on pharmaceuticals, spending almost $1,000 per person on prescription drugs in 2013. Canada, the second highest spender, spent about $700 per person. This is despite one in five Americans skipping doses or a script due to cost, as well as an extremely high percentage (84% in 2011) of prescriptions being written for generic medications.

So what’s up? Well, for one, our drug prices are much higher. Our latest analysis of brand-name drugs sold by international online pharmacies found that their prices were 88% lower when compared to a pharmacy in New York City.

Major drug price differences aren’t the only reason for higher U.S. spending. PBS explains that Americans, sadly, fill more scripts due to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, which of course equates with greater numbers of prescription drug purchases. Another factor is that it’s relatively easy for drug companies to get new drugs approved and in to the U.S. market.

I was a bit surprised that PBS didn’t mention direct-to-consumer advertising as a possible reason for why we use more drugs. New Zealand is the only other country that allows direct-to-consumer advertising, but they have much lower drug prices than the U.S.,  due to government regulations.

For the newly insured, Obamacare might mean lower prices for consumers, but that doesn’t mean overall national spending will go down. Lower out of pocket costs from better co-pay or co-insurance models will likely just mean higher premiums and increased reimbursement to drug manufacturers by insurance companies. Look at it this way: if you spend $20 less on a drug per month, but your premium is $20 more, you’re not really any better off.

Interestingly, U.S. drug spending decreased slightly last year, thanks largely to patent expirations resulting in more generic drugs penetrating the market. While PBS mentions that the decline is expected to last another 2-3 years, I’m not so optimistic. For one, generic drug prices are rising, sometimes by thousands of percent. Second, more coverage under Obamacare means more prescriptions, and naturally more spending. Only time will tell…

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