The University Record, October 9, 2000

You can help keep drug costs down

Editor’s Note: In response to increasing prescription drug costs, the University is raising the co-pays for prescription drug benefits to $7 for generic drugs and $14 for brand-name drugs in most health plans, effective Jan. 1, 2001. The Benefits Office offers a series of five articles (this is the last) to provide background on the reasons behind the co-pay increases and information to help faculty and staff make the most of their prescription drug benefits.

By Kate Kellogg
Human Resources/Affirmative Action

As prescription drug costs continue their double-digit rates of growth, various players in the prescription drug scene are attempting to contain those costs.

Health care organizations and employers are implementing cost-sharing strategies that enlist members’ help in managing the costs of prescription drug benefits.

Physicians increasingly incorporate cost along with quality considerations in their choice of prescriptions. Pharmacists save money for patients and health plans by suggesting generic drug substitutions for equivalent brand-name drugs.

Still another important player can help control spending and ensure effective use of prescription drugs. That person is you, the consumer of those products.

Patients have both the capability and responsibility to exercise good judgment in the purchase and use of prescription drugs. The following suggestions are taken from patient education materials distributed by Care Choices, M-CARE and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan.

Communication is the key to success in using your employee prescription drug benefit. If your doctor does not provide much information about the prescription, beyond “it should take care of the problem,” ask the following questions:

  • What is the name of the medicine? Is this the generic or brand-name?

  • What medical condition is it treating?

  • How and when do I take it and for how long?

  • When should I expect results from this medication?

  • What foods, drinks and other medications should I avoid while taking this medicine?

  • What if I miss a dose?

  • What are the possible side effects? What do I do if they occur?

  • Is there any written information available about the medicine?

    If you miss any of those questions in the doctor’s office, you have a second chance to get the information from the pharmacist. In fact, many pharmacists voluntarily provide more details about prescriptions than do busy doctors.

    Back to the doctor: Older patients or those who have difficulty remembering dosage times and quantities should ask the doctor or nurse to clearly write out those instructions.

    You also can assist your physician in prescribing the safest and most effective drugs for you by providing information that doctors don’t always solicit. You should mention:

  • Prescription medications you are taking, even those prescribed by a specialist or dentist.

  • Non-prescription medications you take, including vitamins and aspirin.

  • Alternative or homeopathy medications, such as herbal products, you use.

  • Any side effects from those medications.

  • Any allergies you have.

    Once you’re at home with the medication, the next important step is seemingly simple: take it as directed. Yet up to 50 percent of patients do not take medication the way their doctor prescribes it, according to M-CARE’s HouseCall Newsletter. Noncompliance occurs across all age, sex, ethnic and economic groups, and accounts for more than 125,000 deaths annually. Medication noncompliance costs more than $100 billion annually in avoidable hospitalization and lost productivity.

    Many patients stop taking their medication as soon as they feel better. Others with serious problems, such as high cholesterol, feel well and don’t remember to maintain their course of treatment. Others adjust their dosage without consulting their doctor. Noncompliance is less likely to occur with patients who thoroughly understand the purpose of their prescriptions.

    Consumers can even participate in efforts to manage prescription drug costs. Your use of generic drugs whenever possible will save money for both you and your health care plan.

    The contracted pharmacies of many HMOs, including M-CARE, now dispense a generic equivalent of a brand-name counterpart unless the prescription indicates DAW (dispense as written). They generally cost 40 to 60 percent less than their brand-name counterparts.

    If your plan offers the lowest co-payment for generic drugs, you are probably already aware of that difference. Most managed care plans encourage physicians to prescribe therapeutically equivalent generic drugs over brand names. But it never hurts to ask the pharmacist if a generic substitution is available for a brand-name drug your doctor has prescribed.

    Another way to save on co-payments, as well as trips to the pharmacy, is through a maintenance drug program. For example, M-CARE authorizes its participating pharmacies to dispense 90-day supplies or 100 doses (whichever is greater) of certain drugs prescribed for chronic conditions. The normal limit is a 34-day supply.

    You can receive the larger quantity on one prescription if your drug is included on the M-CARE maintenance drug list and if your physician orders that quantity. Reviewed and updated annually by the M-CARE Pharmacy and Therapeutics Subcommittee, the maintenance drug list is on the Web at

    As an informed consumer, you have the right to ask your doctor about prescription drugs that interest you. However, if your information came from advertisements, remember that the pharmaceutical companies that pay for these ads hope to profit from your interest.

    Direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs last year cost the pharmaceutical industry $1.3 billion, a 16 percent increase over the previous year’s expenditure. Consumers need to understand how to use this commercial information, says Art Poremba, manager of ambulatory pharmacy services for the Health System.

    “The pharmaceutical companies say they want to make people aware of what’s available. But the information they provide through magazine and television advertising needs to be interpreted in the context of other drugs—some of which may be clinically superior and more cost effective,” Poremba says.

    So be a discriminating, even skeptical consumer when you see an ad for a drug that looks like the cure-all for your ills. Consider taking the following measures:

  • Write down the name of the medication and any questions you have before you see your doctor.

  • Discuss the medication with your doctor to find out if it is right for you.

  • Ask your doctor if there are any other alternatives for the medical condition that are less expensive.

  • Don’t expect or pressure your doctor to write the prescription for you unless he or she feels it is the most appropriate for you.

  • Don’t lose sight of the manufacturer’s chief advertising motive—sales.

    Good patient-doctor communication provides real possibilities for containing prescription drug costs and using drugs more effectively, believes John E. Billi, associate dean of clinical affairs at the Medical School.

    “I think a lot of physicians and employers are under the misconception that patients don’t care about cost as long as they get good coverage,” he says. “To patients who have flat co-pays, I explain why unnecessarily expensive drugs are not good for anyone. I explain that they are sending dollars to pharmaceutical companies, dollars that could otherwise provide health care for their community and keep their insurance premiums low.

    “I’ve never found a patient who responded, ‘I don’t care.’”

    For more information, visit the Web at (FDA’s Tips for Taking Medicines) or (Prescription Medicines and You).