New Medicare Web Site Compares Drug Prices for Beneficiaries
CMS on Wednesday unveiled its "Lower Cost Rx Comparison Tool" on the Medicare Web site and a toll-free phone service to offer consumers a way to compare prices for some medications, the St. Petersburg Times reports (Hundley, St. Petersburg Times, 9/16). The price comparison tool includes information on 52 brand-name and generic medications (Lueck, Wall Street Journal, 9/16). For example, the Web site shows that Merck's anti-cholesterol drug Zocor costs an average of $89.38 for a month's supply of 20 milligram tablets, compared with $57.19 for a similar prescription for Andrx Pharmaceuticals' Altoprev, $63.13 for Novartis' Lescol and $66.08 for Pfizer's Lipitor (Pear, New York Times, 9/16).
The prices cited are those available to seniors who use Medicare drug discount cards, which became available in the spring and so far only have attracted about 10% of Medicare's 43 million beneficiaries. The Journal reports that the site does not compare prescription drug prices to medications available over-the-counter (Wall Street Journal, 9/16). The drugs listed in the tool account for about 25% of all drug spending among Medicare beneficiaries.
The unveiling of the tool comes as Medicare has become "a hot issue in the [presidential] campaign," with the "votes of millions of elderly people" at stake, the New York Times reports (New York Times, 9/16). While President Bush has "touted the program on the campaign trail," Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and other Democrats have "criticized the administration for misleading lawmakers and seniors about the costs" of the new Medicare law, Long Island Newsday reports (Barfield Berry, Long Island Newsday, 9/16).
The project is also seen as Medicare's "latest bid to use its Web site and other information to try to drive down prices and jump-start the flailing discount card program," according to the Journal (Wall Street Journal, 9/16). HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson first announced plans in March to create the drug price comparison tool (New York Times, 9/16). However, technical difficulties and drug industry opposition delayed progress, the Journal reports (Wall Street Journal, 9/16).
Thompson said that when he discussed the project with drug company officials, they said they "would rather [HHS] not do it" because of concerns that the Web site could lead consumers to believe that drugs listed in the same category are equivalent and could be substituted for another without careful analysis by a physicians (New York Times, 9/16). "It's very important that the medicines the patients take are carefully selected by their doctors. A medicine that is right for one patient is not necessarily right for another," Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said (Lipman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 9/15).
The site advises beneficiaries who want to switch to less expensive drugs to consult their physicians because dosages and side effects can vary from one product to another (Wall Street Journal, 9/16). "Only physicians can decide what drug is best for their patient," CMS Administrator Mark McClellan said. He added, "We want to help patients and their physicians find the least costly way to get the health benefits that prescription drugs can provide -- including an informed discussion about whether a less expensive, similar drug is right for them" (St. Petersburg Times, 9/16).
Thompson said the tool could help lower drug prices, saying, "The more Americans compare prices, the more market pressure will drive prices down. That's what this is all about." McClellan said consumers who are not enrolled in Medicare are encouraged to use the price comparison tool to find lower-cost alternatives because while the tool displays discount drug card prices, the listings "do reflect price differentials that exist" in non-Medicare markets.
Gail Shearer, a health policy analyst at Consumers Union, said, "If this helps educate doctors about the need to talk with patients about insurance coverage and price and value, this is a good first step" (Wall Street Journal, 9/16). However, she added, "The Web site is challenging to use. You need to be really Web-savvy and good with a computer mouse to get useful information." Fewer than 25% of seniors regularly use the Internet, but the number is "growing rapidly," according to the New York Times. Shearer said that while the pricing database provides "the kind of information consumers desperately need," the site would be more useful if CMS added information comparing drugs' effectiveness in treating the same conditions.
Under the Medicare law, the government is required to perform such "comparative clinical effectiveness" research, the New York Times reports. Ian Spatz, a vice president with Merck, said, "It's good that patients will be able to get more information," but he cautioned that people need to understand that medications in the same category can have different effects (New York Times, 9/16).