Buying drugs by bulk best Rx

July 12, 2006|By PAUL ADAMS | PAUL ADAMS,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore consumers who lack health coverage pay almost 62 percent more for prescription drugs than the federal government does when buying medicine in bulk for its employees, retirees and military veterans, a new survey says.

The Maryland Public Interest Research Group survey said uninsured Baltimore consumers also pay more than twice as much for a sampling of 10 common prescription drugs than they would pay at a Canadian pharmacy. The city had the 14th-highest costs of 35 cities included in the unscientific survey conducted by PIRG volunteers nationwide.

The results come as Maryland lawmakers have sought in recent years to pass legislation to help low-income and uninsured residents gain access to affordable health care. Last year, the Assembly passed legislation that would allow some low-income residents to enroll in a pharmacy discount program, but the law has been held up while state officials seek a federal waiver to let the program go forward.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate took a step toward allowing Americans to import prescription drugs from Canada, attempting to reverse a ban on the movement of cheaper drugs across the border. Critics have for years opposed the measure on the grounds that such drugs could be unsafe for consumers. In fact, the reversal is not expected to pass a House-Senate conference, and the Bush administration has opposed such proposals.

PIRG volunteers in 22 states surveyed 669 pharmacies selected at random, but it was unclear how many of those pharmacies were in Maryland. Online pharmacies were not included in the survey.

"With no one to negotiate lower prices on their behalf, uninsured consumers often face sticker shock when trying to afford medically necessary prescriptions," said Johanna Neumann, a Maryland PIRG policy advocate.

The group, which favors letting U.S. residents import cheaper drugs from Canada, compared prices for drugs commonly used by people under 65, including antibiotics, allergy medication, anti-depressants and cholesterol-lowering drugs. The survey found that uninsured Americans pay 60 percent more on average than the federal government pays for the drugs surveyed - or slightly less than the Baltimore average.

Like most large employers and health management companies, the government uses its sizable purchasing power to negotiate lower prices for participants in its programs. Uninsured consumers lack access to such buying pools and often end up paying the so-called "sticker price" for drugs.

Howard Schiff, executive director of the Maryland Pharmacists Association, said the survey results reveal nothing new. "The federal government has always paid less," Schiff said. "I was in the Army 45 years ago, and when I saw what they pay for drugs, I was astonished. The government uses their bargaining power."

Schiff said 95 percent of pharmacy customers receive a discount through health insurance or government programs. Ideally, he said, there would be a program to cover the rest.

PIRGs in numerous states conducted the same survey in 2004 with similar results. The latest survey suggests that Baltimore prices for prescription drugs included in both surveys have increased 10 percent over the two-year period - a rate faster than inflation. The PIRG report suggests a number of recommendations to ease the burden of high drug costs on low-income consumers, including steps to speed the approval of cheaper generic drugs. The group also calls for the creation of prescription drug buying pools among states to enable individuals and businesses to strengthen their negotiating power with drug companies.

paul.adams@baltsun.com

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