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Washington --- The Bush administration wants Medicare patients to question their doctors about alternative medicines that may be cheaper than those they are now taking.
Beginning Wednesday, Medicare began offering price comparisons between similar drugs that treat common diseases among the elderly. Medicare officials said they were not trying to prescribe lower-priced drugs to patients but give patients information with which to question their doctors.
Officials said specific decisions about whether to substitute a cheaper drug for a more expensive drug should be made by physicians, but they predicted that the competition among similar drugs would lower costs.
"This is going to do more to drive down drug prices than anything else," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said. "It will make people better educated and allow for better competition than ever before."
The comparison information will give patients prices for 52 brand name and generic drugs, including those for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart failure, allergies, decongestants, arthritis pain and stomach acid reduction.
Together, those categories of drugs comprise about one-fourth of all drug spending by Medicare patients, according to Dr. Mark McClellan, head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The comparisons can be found by navigating through the Medicare Web site (www.medicare.gov) or by calling the Medicare hotline at 1-800-633-4227.
As an example of how the comparison works, Medicare officials noted that Zocor, a popularly used drug for treating high cholesterol, costs an average of $89.38 per month nationwide. A similar drug, Altoprev, costs an average of $57.19 a month, or $386.32 a year less. The dosages between the two drugs differ, but officials said the effect is similar.
Tony Plohoros, a spokesman for Zocor manufacturer Merck, said, "It's up to the patient and physician to determine whether Zocor or an alternative is best for the patient."
Thompson noted that anyone --- not just Medicare beneficiaries --- can use the Medicare Web site to compare relative price differences between similar drugs.
"The more Americans compare prices, the more market pressures will drive drug prices down," he said.
Pharmaceutical industry spokesman Jeff Trewhitt said, "We support patients having information about medicines available and the prices they will pay for them. It's very important that the medicines the patients take are carefully selected by their doctors. A medicine that is right for one patient is not necessarily right for another."
The American Medical Association also released a statement from its chairman, Dr. J. James Rohack, supporting Medicare's initiative.
"The list of prescription medication options provides an estimate that can help patients evaluate potential cost savings and also assist physicians in choosing the best medication for their patients," Rohack said.
Patients can generally substitute lower-cost generic drugs --- which have the same properties as brand names --- for specific brands, but must have a doctor's prescription to switch from one brand name drug to another, McClellan said.
Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution