Many Americans would likely agree that prescription drug prices are too high. Unfortunately, the Department of Health and Human Services’ recent proposed rule requiring pharmaceutical companies to include drugs’ list prices in advertising is one of those strange cases that may lead to greater information and transparency without much real value to the health-care consumer.
As several news outlets have documented, the list price to be shown in advertisements, according to the proposed rule, would not match the price that most patients would have to pay. That is due to differing prescription drug insurance plans and negotiated arrangements between drug companies and some pharmacy benefit managers.
The publicized prices will be meaningless to the average consumer.
That begs the question of how will health-care consumers benefit from this rule.
The most likely benefit to consumers would be the ability to compare relative cost of different medications. For instance, the cost difference between different, therapeutically equivalent, generic cholesterol-lowering drugs can be over $170 per month, according to pricing information available from Express Scripts.
Such savings could drastically reduce the financial burden for patients who require regular medications to reduce the risk of more severe health problems.
As a nurse and a health researcher who studies how people manage and take their prescription medication, advertisements for prescription drugs create an interesting dilemma. There has been no solid evidence to date that prescription drug advertisements have improved public health.
The growth of direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising over the last 20 years has led health care providers to lament the resulting effect of patients self-diagnosing their symptoms and requesting medications that may not be the best fit for them, or those that are far more expensive than a similarly effective drug already on the market.
Although the American Medical Association has taken a position arguing for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs, such a ban is unlikely given the current U.S. Supreme Court’s position on corporations’ free speech rights.
There is value in patients having more information and exerting autonomy in decisions about their health and treatment of their health conditions. Patients tend to adhere to treatment plans better when they feel that they collaborated with their health care provider in the treatment decisions. It would be unfortunate to take steps backward toward the paternalistic approach to health care of the past.
A better solution might be to put more of the might of the health care industry and health professional organizations like the AMA and the American Nurses’ Association behind educating the public to be more critical consumers of health care information. While pharmaceutical companies benefit the public by developing new therapies, in the end the drug manufacturers are still trying to sell you a product.
It’s always best to get information from trusted, impartial sources to make sure it’s the right product for you. That source may not be the drug company trying to sell you a certain brand of medication.
Todd Ruppar PhD, RN, is the John L. and Helen Kellogg professor of nursing at Rush University and is a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project. Follow him on Twitter @ToddRuppar.