Over the past year we’ve heard about terrible price increases in the EpiPen® and how horrible this skyrocketing was because it’s a lifesaving medication. There’s no doubt that the EpiPen is lifesaving, but what qualifies a medication as lifesaving? Any medication that controls an acute or chronic medical problem is lifesaving.
As an endocrinologist, to me the most common lifesaving medication is insulin. Let’s look at what has happened due to the costs of insulin. Retail costs of newer insulins can cost up to $500 or even $600 per month. Older ones can cost about half that. And copays can range from $40 to $150. Patients sometimes tell to their physicians that they’ve stopped their insulin because they can’t afford it. In fact, some have reported that they stopped their insulins and ended up in the hospital, but their hospital copay was less than their prescriptions. Older patients have said that they stopped their insulins when they hit the “doughnut hole” in Medicare.
If you go on the Good Rx website, you’ll find that you can get regular or NPH insulin (an intermediate insulin) for around $27 each. I’ve sent patients in two different states to Wal-Mart pharmacies to buy these insulins, and they have all been told that Wal-Mart doesn’t have anything comparable to these prices. Many pharmaceutical companies offer discount cards that enable patients to purchase a month’s supply for $10 to $25 for up to 12 months. But, to get these cards, you must meet eligibility requirements. And if you’re on Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, VA, Department of Defense or similarly federally or state-funded programs, you won’t qualify. One bright spot is that Federal Employees Health Benefits Program members do qualify.
When trying to get to the real costs of medications, it is impossible to get a straightforward answer. Everyone seems to blame someone else. The manufacturer blames the pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), the PBMs blame the government, and the government seems to blame everybody else. There is truly no transparency in the cost of medications. Remember, when patients don’t take their medications, it harms them and drives up the cost of medical care for everyone. Until we solve this problem, patients will continue to be hurt and the cost of care will continue to skyrocket. I wonder what would happen if everybody from the government on down had to pay the exact same price for medications?