New York Times Examines Comparative Data on Prescription Drug Prices on Medicare Web Site
The New York Times on Monday examined how new comparative data on prescription drug retail prices to be published this month on the Medicare program's official Web site, medicare.gov, could become "immensely useful" to Medicare beneficiaries and to other consumers, private insurers and employers who provide drug coverage to employees and retirees. Ana Nunez-Poole, Web site manager at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the main purpose of providing such information was to help beneficiaries compare the merits of the drug discount cards issued by private entities and approved by the government. The new listings will show prices for 60,000 products sold at nearly 75,000 pharmacies nationwide. Web site visitors will be able to find prices for specific drugs at various dosages at retail pharmacies in or near a given ZIP code, as well as prices for generic equivalents and for competing brand-name drugs used to treat the same condition. The site could facilitate comparison shopping in an industry in which drug prices have been variable and "notoriously secretive," the Times reports. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said the listing will "help drive down drug prices" because "companies will have to reduce prices to compete" (Pear, New York Times, 4/12).
Two recent New York Times stories examine the new Medicare prescription drug discount cards and the Medicare trustees' report, which predicts that the program's hospital trust fund will become insolvent by 2019, seven years earlier than previously predicted. Summaries of the stories appear below.
- "Discount Drug Cards Are Coming: It's Time to Do Your Homework": The prescription drug discount card program, created in the new Medicare law as a stop-gap measure until the full prescription drug benefit begins in 2006, will "no doubt" benefit millions of beneficiaries, but "determining who will benefit and which plan will be best will not be easy," according to the Times (Hershey, New York Times, 4/13). In March, the Bush administration gave 28 private firms -- mostly large health insurers and pharmacy benefit managers -- permission to offer prescription drug discount cards to Medicare beneficiaries. The 28 firms will offer a total of 49 different drug card programs, 30 of which will be available nationwide and 19 of which will be offered on a regional basis. Administration officials expect the card to save beneficiaries up to 25% off of their prescription drug costs (California Healthline, 3/26). In total, about 7.3 million beneficiaries are expected to sign up for the cards and save at least $1.4 billion this year and $2 billion in 2005. Average savings are projected to be $192 per person this year and $274 per person next year, the Times reports. However, the cards' benefits "vary depending on which card is chosen, and people who are eligible will need to examine each option in light of their needs," according to the Times. The government has launched a public education campaign designed to help beneficiaries determine which card best suits their needs, including a savings calculator on the CMS Web site and 1-800-Medicare (New York Times, 4/13).
- "Chicken Little is Ready for Medicare": Many of the headlines and teasers about the Medicare trustees' annual report were "downright scary," but in reality they "weren't true," Fred Brock, an editor at the Times writes. According to Brock, "it all boils to this: in 15 years, Medicare may not be able to pay 20% of a 56% chunk of its bills without some extra money from somewhere. That means an overall shortfall for all Medicare spending of about 11%." However, according to Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, such media reports are a "distortion ... a disservice" and "totally inaccurate." According to Brock, another problem is that economic projections "don't have a great track record, even for the short term." John Palmer, a Medicare trustee and a professor at Syracuse University, said it is "wrong to say Medicare will go broke," and the situation is "not as dire as headlines would have you believe." Hayes adds, "These dubious projections are useful reminders that we need to have a debate on where we want to be as a civilized community. People should understand that Medicare is financed like other government programs and if we want it, we have to pay for it" (Brock, New York Times, 4/11).