Federal Health Officials Praise Savings Offered Under Medicare Prescription Drug Discount Card Program
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said Thursday that federal officials are "pleased" with the discounts offered under the new Medicare prescription drug discount program, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. Discount information was posted Thursday on the Medicare Web site (Wolfe, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 4/30). Created as part of the new Medicare law, the discount cards will be available beginning May 3 to all beneficiaries who do not have prescription drug coverage through Medicaid. Companies offering the cards can charge an annual enrollment fee of up to $30 and likely will offer savings on at least one drug in each of 209 categories of medicines commonly used by Medicare beneficiaries. HHS in March approved a number of private companies to offer different discount cards to Medicare beneficiaries. Beneficiaries with annual incomes of less than $12,569 per year for individuals or $16,862 for couples will be eligible for a $600 annual subsidy for their prescription drug costs and will not have to pay enrollment fees. Medicare beneficiaries can use the Medicare Web site or call 1-800-MEDICARE to make card-to-card comparisons of drug discounts (California Healthline, 4/29). According to Thompson, discount cards posted so far on the Web site are offering average savings of about 17% for brand-name drugs and 30% for generic drugs (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 4/29). "Give it six weeks and start watching the movement" in prices, Thompson said (Graham, Chicago Tribune, 4/30). As of Thursday afternoon, information was available for 35 of the cards endorsed by Medicare, but more cards are expected to be added before enrollment begins Monday (Lipman, Cox News/Memphis Commercial Appeal, 4/30). Ian Spatz, a vice president at Merck, said that some discounts are "going to take some time to show up because we're only now beginning to sign contracts with these discount card plans. You are going to be seeing very transparent price competition" (Brubaker, Washington Post, 4/30).
Consumer advocates and some Democratic lawmakers on Thursday criticized the program, saying that the pricing information on the Medicare Web site shows that in many cases, online pharmacies and Canadian drug stores offer larger discounts, the New York Times reports (Pear/Freudenheim, New York Times, 4/30). A report released by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and other House Democrats showed that prices available through the Medicare discount drug card program are about the same or higher than what beneficiaries would pay for the same 10 drugs from Internet pharmacies Drugstore.com and Costco.com (Wall Street Journal, 4/30). According to the AP/St. Petersburg Times, prices for Lipitor, Celebrex and other popular brand-name medications available through the Medicare discount program are no better than what consumers can find through online pharmacies (AP/St. Petersburg Times, 4/30). Some Democrats said the Bush administration could have obtained better discounts if it had negotiated directly with pharmaceutical companies, a move that is prohibited under the new Medicare law. "The Bush administration drug cards flunk the truth-in-advertising test. They're no solution for sky-high drug prices," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said (Washington Post, 4/30). Some Democrats also criticized the drug card program for offering discounts that could be offset by pharmaceutical company price increases, CongressDaily reports. The cards "remind me of a sale at Neiman-Marcus. They jack up the price right before they give you the discount," Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) said (Rovner, CongressDaily, 4/29). Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said that "a 10% or 15% discount is not a price break. It's an insult" (New York Times, 4/30).
"The bottom line is this is much ado about very little. There's precious little seniors will get from it," Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said. Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said that because the Medicare Web site does not include comparison information for discounts offered through state programs, drug companies and other groups, the "site ... is incomplete, imprecise and at times misleading" (Graham, Chicago Tribune, 4/30). He added, "Anything that helps one person get a prescription filled is better than nothing. But at the end of the day, the real benefit of these discount cards will be to get people to take stock and look at all of their options" (Washington Post, 4/30).
In the House, some Democrats used the release of discount information to renew their call to allow U.S. residents to purchase drugs from Canada and Europe, where they are often less expensive, according to CongressDaily (Rovner, CongressDaily, 4/29). "Even with the discount cards, drugs will be more expensive in the United States than in Canada and Europe," Emanuel said (New York Times, 4/30). According to the AP/St. Petersburg Times, the best discounts offered through Medicare for three best-selling drugs -- arthritis drug Celebrex, osteoporosis drug Fosomax and cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor -- were at least 33% higher than prices available at the three Canadian pharmacies listed on Wisconsin's online prescription drug resource Web site (AP/St. Petersburg Times, 4/30). Some House Democrats found that through several Medicare drug discount cards, a selection of 10 medications would cost about $400 more than if they were purchased in Canada. CMS Administrator Mark McClellan said that buying drugs from Canada raises safety concerns, adding that the "most important comparison" is what beneficiaries are "paying now versus the assistance they can get with the drug card" (Wall Street Journal, 4/30).
- MPR's "Marketplace" on Thursday reported on the launch of the Medicare Web site. The segment includes comments from Hayes; Tricia Neuman, a Kaiser Family Foundation vice president and director of its Medicare Policy Project; and CMS Acting Deputy Director Leslie Norwalk (Palmer, "Marketplace," MPR, 4/29). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- PBS' "NOW with Bill Moyers" on Friday will include a segment on the Medicare law, which critics say was passed "under outrageous, even scandalous, circumstances" and will "shortchang[e]" beneficiaries but "lin[e] the pockets of powerful drug companies." The segment will interview Democratic and Republican lawmakers who opposed the legislation, including Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who calls the bill's passage "a major mistake" (Chase, "NOW with Bill Moyers," PBS, 4/30). A transcript of the segment is available online. In addition, the program's Web site includes a question and answer session with Neuman about the new Medicare legislation. The complete transcript and video of the program will be available online in RealPlayer after the broadcast.
- Doug Badger, President Bush's health policy adviser, is scheduled to answer questions today in the "Ask the White House" chat. A transcript of the chat will be available online following the chat.