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Web site compares drugs for 'best buys'

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The publisher of Consumer Reports launched a free Web site Thursday to do for prescription drugs what it has already done for cars, refrigerators and other gadgets: rate them on safety, effectiveness and cost.

The first-of-a-kind Web site -- -- compares drugs for high cholesterol, pain relief and heartburn, choosing a ''best buy'' in each category. In the next two years, 20 categories of drugs will be analyzed.

The site may add pressure to drugmakers to demonstrate how their products stack up against those of similar competitors. It is part of a growing movement by employers, insurers and the government to funnel patients to treatments, hospitals or doctors with proven track records and cost-effective programs.

''We're doing this because the cost of drugs has become a national crisis in this country,'' says Joel Gurin, executive vice president of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.

Choosing ''best buy'' drugs could save patients hundreds each year, he says.

Medical information for the site is drawn from published studies analyzed by a research center that is already providing the information to 12 states for their Medicaid programs.

To be considered a ''best buy,'' the drug must have a safety record as good as others in the same category and be priced significantly lower than the most costly drug.

The site says:

* Consumers who need to lower cholesterol a moderate amount can save up to $1,300 a year by switching from brand-name cholesterol-lowering drugs to the site's ''best buy'' generic, lovastatin. The pick for those who need stronger drugs is Pfizer's Lipitor.

The site says less is known about newer drugs Lescol and Crestor, so it does not include them in the rankings.

* Arthritis and pain sufferers could save up to $180 a month by choosing generic ibuprofen or generic salsalate.

* Many heartburn patients could benefit from over-the-counter products rather than prescriptions. The best-buy pick is over-the-counter omeprazole, the generic version of Prilosec.

In recent years, the drug industry has criticized efforts to compare drugs or limit Medicaid patients to certain products, saying the data may be insufficient to make comparisons and that patients should have a wide range of choices.

But private insurers commonly rank drugs on lists of ''preferred and non-preferred'' drugs, often based on both medical evidence and cost.

The drug industry's trade group on Thursday gave a measured response to the Consumer Reports site.

Spokesmen said patients should always discuss the choice of drugs with their doctors. And the ''best buy'' may not be the best for all patients, said Paul Antony, chief medical officer for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

''Different medicines work differently in different people,'' Antony says.

Although the company's drug Lipitor was chosen as a ''best buy'' for patients needing extra help lowering their cholesterol, a Pfizer spokesman had some criticisms of the site.

Robert Popovian, senior director of Pfizer's medical division, said the site's researchers did not include all types of studies, such as research into how patients use a drug in the real world, not as part of a clinical trial.

Without that information, he said, patients don't know about research showing some drugs are better tolerated by patients than others.

''You and I can take the same drug, and we will have a different reaction to that drug,'' Popovian says.

Others say the Consumers Union site does provide valuable information. Sheila Weiss Smith, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, says patients and their doctors will gain insight into drug prices and effectiveness through the site. But, she warns, consumers should read the entire report on the class of drug they are considering, not just the short highlight page that precedes each section.

''If you just read the highlights, you're not informed,'' she says.

The pharmacy benefit management industry, which does similar research for insurers and employers, praised the Web site, as well as other efforts by employers and insurers to seek comparative data from medical providers.

''The days of the drug industry dictating which drugs work, who should take them and what they should cost are over,'' says Mark Merritt, president of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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