Prescription Drugs Don’t Come Cheap

Drug companies are at it again… Not only do they ruthlessly compete for large percentages of the prescription drug market, but now that ‘top-selling’ drug patents are expiring, they are cleverly finding ways to keep some consumers coming back for more. Quick question, “How many of you out there are bargain shoppers?” I would hope all, why waste money when you can get it for cheaper, right? Ok, “How many of you out there use coupons?” I can see thousands of ladies raising their hands right now with coupon clippings in hand, like ” Ooooh, I do, and I’m really good too. Saved myself $34 and some change last time out!” God I love the savvy consumer. Now, try putting those two concepts together and this is what you get…

As current economies, both the US and worldwide, continue to struggle, and health care costs steadily increasing, the price of doing business for prescription drug companies like Pfizer and the like is becoming too much to handle. Research and development for future drugs has become a more scrutinized process by the FDA, costing drug companies billions of dollars before getting final approval. In order to recoup this initial investment, the government has allowed Drug Companies exclusive rights to the market for 10-15 years before a generic equivalent can even be offered as a cost-saving solution to patients. So, after billions in profit and the drug companies’ patent is about to expire, one would think the smaller companies putting out generics can now get a piece of the pie, right? Wrong. Large Rx drug companies aren’t going to just ‘hand over’ a large part of the market like that without kicking and screaming. So, what have they done to offset this? You guessed it! Coupons.

Drug companies are taking a strategic and tactical but simplistic approach to offsetting the loss of billions of dollars in revenue to generic drug makers by offering existing or prospective patients coupons for discounts on monthly brand name prescriptions. I mean think about it, what better way to maintain a small percentage of your clientele base than to offer them incentive to stick around? Times are tough man; we have to save wherever we can, but (and drug companies love this…) we are also creatures of habit. We trust who we trust, who we know, even if that means spending a few extra dollars. This is exactly what large Rx drug companies are banking on. When the patent expires on brand name drugs, generic equivalents flood the market and can be offered for as low as 90% below the cost of brand names. At this point, most consumers usually switch. A massive drop-off of consumer brand loyalty costs drug makers billions, unless they can ‘slow the bleeding.’ In this case, drug companies that offer coupons are effectively killing two birds with one stone. Here’s how…. By offering coupons, consumers are happy to maintain their brand loyalty without having to pay as much as before. And most importantly, they can continue to use a drug that they know works for them versus taking the chance with an unproven generic and its side effects. This is great news!… except for one thing…. “The coupons only work with private insurance, though. Patients with Medicare or other government health insurance are barred from using them.”

Hold on a sec. So, if I understand this correctly, Rx drug companies are only going to incentivize people with private insurance? Isn’t that discriminatory? Yes. And there’s nothing you can do about it. If you are a Medicare beneficiary or qualify for government health insurance, like Medicaid, you do not get to participate in the coupon party. That stinks!!! Medicare/Medicaid beneficiaries who live off of Social Security/Supplemental Security Income (SSI), respectively, are expected to continue to pay the rising costs of Rx drugs or they are forced to switch to generics. Has anyone considered the ramifications of this?! What if seniors or these low-incomed individuals end up worsening their health condition due to the side effects of switching to generics? What happens then? Are we to just look the other way, and tell them to “stick with what works?” Oh, and by the way, in order to safely monitor your condition, you will need to continue to spend hundreds of dollars a year, even though we know you cannot afford it. So much for keeping the consumer’s best interests at heart. Where’s the compassion? Im sorry, I forgot that we were talking about Rx drug companies here. It’s a business and only that. As long as their bottom line doesn’t fall too far too fast that is all they are concerned with.

Not surprisingly, commercial insurers don’t like the coupons, because their share of the cost for a brand-name drug is much higher than for a generic pill. Virtually all prescription plans automatically switch patients to a new generic drug [once available] the next time they refill their prescription. The [Rx] plans also move the drug from the copayment level [usually Tier 2] for most brand-name drugs, usually around $25, to their highest copayment level [usually Tier 3], often $50 to $75 per prescription. [This is to force patients to accept the move to generic drugs because Tier 3 drug cost-sharing for insurance company is more expensive than the cost-sharing for a generic; this method is preferred by the insurance company, regardless of the effect, whether financial or physical, on the beneficiary.] The coupons throw a wrench into insurers’ strategy of getting as many patients as possible to take generic drugs, which account for about 80 percent of all prescriptions filled in the U.S. [To combat this, drug makers are] also signing unprecedented deals with dozens of insurers that lower their (the insurer’s) portion of the cost of [a brand drug] to what a generic would cost them — [as long as] they covered only brand [name ‘X’] for [x amount of time]. That meant both patients and insurers had a big financial incentive to stick with [the brand name drug] for a while.

Drug makers use coupons to fight generics, by Associated Press Aug, 20,2012

So, where do we go from here? I don’t know, it’s tough to say. For right now, it is what it is. Medicare/Medicaid beneficiaries are excluded from the rewards of brand loyalty. I apologize that I unfortunately could not give you any definitive answers as to how to approach or circumnavigate this issue. I hope by asking questions about these incentive ‘kick-backs’ I might be able to raise eyebrows for someone, somewhere, who in a place of power or authority can say ” What are we doing, are we really allowing this to happen?” By generating discussion we can bring to light our concerns. Until then, only time will tell.