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    A prescription to help cure high drug costs?

    Patients who lack health insurance or have high deductibles for prescriptions can avail themselves of numerous options to purchase medications at a discount.

     

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    Doctors whose patients use these services—such as GoodRx, HelpRx and Blink Health—say they provide savings, primarily on generic drugs. But it’s debatable how much help these services truly provide in meeting the challenge of high deductibles for prescriptions.

    George G. Ellis Jr., MD, an internist in Youngstown, Ohio, and chief medical adviser for Medical Economics, says he provides patients with information regarding one or more online prescription services and encourages them to comparison shop.

    “I’ve got a lot of elderly patients, and I want to make sure they get their meds and are able to afford their meds,” he says. “My concern is taking care of the patients and making sure that patients receive the medications they need at a reasonable cost, so they don’t compromise their health.”

    These online services are addressing a very real need, given the variation in the prices of prescription medications, the result of a dizzying series of negotiations among manufacturers, insurers, distributors and pharmacies, says Darius Lakdawalla, Ph.D., a health economist at the University of Southern California.

    “At the end of that complicated dance, there ends up being a lot of diversity in the price of what seems like an identical drug,” he says. “More information is almost always better, and here, the case is that more information about pricing is definitely better because there’s so much idiosyncratic variation.”

    Leaders of these online prescription services cite national statistics that they say underscore the challenges patients face. GoodRx chief executive officer Doug Hirsch points to figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation that show 29% of consumers were covered by high-deductible plans in 2016, up from 13% in 2010.

    And Matthew Chaiken, cofounder and chief operating officer of Blink Health, says figures from the Commonwealth Fund and Kaiser indicate that 70 million patients in the U.S. are either uninsured or underinsured, which he notes can translate to high deductibles and copays. 

    The online services provide greater benefits to those without insurance, says Edward Kaplan, senior vice president and national health practice leader at Segal Consulting. Segal’s employer clients have become more interested in finding discounts on drug prices, given that 40% offer percentage-based (as opposed to fixed-dollar) copays and/or high-deductible plans, yet their interest in services like GoodRx and Blink Health has been tepid. 

    “We bring them up to our clients,” he says. “We say, ‘You’ve got these firms out there, they’re free, you can promote them to [benefit plan] members and maybe they can be better shoppers. We haven’t gotten a huge amount of interest from HR and benefit directors.”

     

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    To the extent individual policy holders might be using those plans, Kaplan notes that their employers would not necessarily know about it. “It’s an individual going onto a retail site and doing their own thing,” he says. 

    Next: Understanding the savings mechanics

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