Generic-drug machines grow

ATM-like devices dispense samples


They look like ATMs but when the right password is punched in, prescription drugs - all generics - pop out instead of greenbacks.

And soon these machines, which encourage doctors to prescribe generics instead of more expensive brand-name drugs, could be coming to a physician's office near you.

The machines allow doctors to give patients their first prescription of a generic drug free, straight from the machines. Patients cannot access the machines without authorization.

If the patient requires a refill, the doctor writes a regular prescription for the generic drug to be filled at the normal price at a drugstore.

The machines, called Sample Centers, are the brainchild of MedVantx, a small, privately owned San Diego company with 40 employees. Almost 200 doctors' offices in seven states now use the Sample Centers.

"The people who care about this are the health plans and the employer groups and the consumers," said Robert J. Feeney, MedVantx's president and chief executive.

It's a way, Feeney said, to compete with pharmaceutical giants such as Merck & Co. Inc. and Pfizer Inc., whose sales representatives are constantly pushing brand-name drugs by giving samples to doctors who then give patients a few free pills to start a prescription.

MedVantx stocks its Sample Centers with 30 different generic drugs and signs up doctors willing to use the machines at no cost. The company also signs up insurers willing to pay for the use of the machines and for the generic prescriptions that come out of them. Each time a prepackaged generic prescription is dispensed, the patient's insurance company is charged for the transaction - MedVantx won't disclose the amount.

MedVantx began placing its drug-dispensing machines in doctors' offices in 2004, Feeney said. As a result, he said, patients have saved $17.5 million in co-payments and participating insurers have saved $22.7 million.

A MedVantx database keeps information about patients and their insurance. The machine reads bar codes attached to the prescription packages and transmits all pertinent information to the insurer. The doctor's office does no paperwork.

"That's the beauty," said Dr. David V. Rasa, whose High Mountain Health group practice in Wayne, N.J., uses a MedVantx machine.

The machine allows Rasa to prescribe an assortment of generics such as lisinopril for high blood pressure straight from the machine rather than write a prescription for the more expensive but identical Prinivil, made by Merck.

"You put your password in, you take your routing slip, the machine scans it and moves it forward," Rasa said.

Information goes to a patient's chart, a label and side-effect advice are printed, and the drug is dispensed.

Merck spokeswoman Janet Skidmore said she was unfamiliar with the MedVantx program and could not comment on it. However, Skidmore noted: "We will vigorously defend our patents, but once a product is generic, we believe generics are a very critical step in patients' health."

MedVantx has agreements with 15 insurers, including United Healthcare, Aetna and various BlueCross BlueShield plans.

Currently, there are Sample Centers in doctors' offices in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, California, Oregon, Minnesota and North Dakota. Recently, MedVantx began putting over-the-counter generic drugs into its machines in addition to prescription medicines.

Kathleen Kerr writes for Newsday.

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