Here's evidence that prescription drugs don't have to cost a fortune: New research finds Medicare saved billions as more generic cholesterol-lowering medications became available, even though the number of Americans using the drugs increased.
"One of the most important contributors to our healthcare costs is expenditure on prescription drugs," said study author Dr. Ambarish Pandey, a cardiologist and assistant professor of internal medicine at University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center. "The switch to generics is an effective strategy to cut the costs incurred by health systems."
Between 2010 and 2018, patents on a number of cholesterol-lowering drugs expired — including Crestor and Zetia — and generic versions became available.
For the study, researchers analyzed Medicare Part D Prescription Drug data from January 2014 through December 2018. They found that the number of prescriptions for statins and other cholesterol-lowering drugs climbed from 20.5 million to 25.2 million in that period, a 23% increase.
But even though prescriptions for the drugs rose, total costs decreased, according to the study.
The number of prescriptions for generic cholesterol-lowering drugs rose by 35%, from 17.8 million to 24 million, while overall spending on statins fell by 52%, from $4.8 billion in 2014 to $2.3 billion in 2018.
Statins are the most popular type of cholesterol-lowering drug in the United States, prescribed to more than 35 million people.
During the study period, Medicare still spent $9.6 billion on brand-name cholesterol-lowering medications, but could have saved an additional $2.5 billion of that by switching to generics more quickly when they became available, the researchers noted.
The findings were published Sept. 9 in the journal JAMA Cardiology.
"It's important for our healthcare system to find avenues to become more cost-efficient and accessible," said study first author Dr. Andrew Sumarsono, an assistant professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern.
"Even though there is still a lot of work to be done, it is encouraging to see how quickly patients switched to generic options once they became available," Sumarsono said in a UT Southwestern news release. "This rapid switch to generics saved Medicare a lot of money."