The internet has transformed the way consumers buy everything from clothes and cars to food and movie tickets. Can the power of technology also disrupt how Americans purchase prescription drugs?
Certainly, it is an area crying out for innovation amid soaring cost increases that are straining the budgets of Americans who rely on medication to manage pain or chronic disease. Prescription drug costs for those under age 65, which shot up more than 11 percent in 2016, are are projected to jump nearly 12 percent this year, according to research firm Segal Consulting. And generic drugs, while cheaper, are no panacea given their own price increases and lack of availability for many medical conditions.
Enter websites such as GoodRx, which bills itself as the "Orbitz for prescription drugs" and which continually tracks prices and discounts from over 70,000 local and mail-order pharmacies across the country. Punch the prescription into GoodRx, also available as an app, and a customer is connected to coupons that can be brought to a local pharmacy to purchase the drug. It even has a section for pet prescriptions (which can also be sky-high).
GoodRx partnered with the nation's largest pharmacy benefits manager, Express Scripts, along with eight major drug companies, on a plan called Inside Rx that's designed to lower out-of-pocket costs for brand-name drugs for those without insurance or with higher deductibles. The program covers 40 brand name drugs for those 65 and under without insurance.
Another site and app, Blink Health, gets drug prices straight from drugmakers. The company groups patients' prescriptions together for purchasing power to lower price, offering over 15,000 medications on its site available at 57,000 pharmacies. Customers pay for the medication online, then pick up the prescription.
Prescription drug prices are not regulated. Prices are set via a complex web of relationships between pharmaceutical companies and drug distributors. As a result, drug pricing is notoriously opaque, leaving consumers and even insurers in the dark about why the cost of their medications are surging.
"Contracts among the various players in the prescription drug market treat both negotiated reductions and net prices as confidential trade secrets," a recent Brookings Institute paper noted. "As a result, the amounts paid by a health plan and a patient for a prescription bear a tenuous relationship to publicly known prices and, for generic drugs, to what a pharmacy actually pays to acquire the medicine and what a manufacturer actually receives for that medicine."
That means a pharmacy down the block may have a completely different price for the same drug, but a consumer would have to do quite a bit of legwork to find it.
Jon Jablonski, who deals with constant pain after complications from a surgery lead to a pinched sciatic nerve, recently turned to technology in hopes of cutting his medication. The Minnesota resident was paying $463 a month at his local pharmacy for a a 30-day supply of Lyrica, which is used to control nerve and muscle pain.
On Blink, Jablonski was able to find it for $414, a nearly $50 savings. An even better price was available through Good RX -- $382 dollars with an online coupon.
Still, as with other online deals on other products, consumers should exercise some healthy skepticism. University of Minnesota professor Stephen Schondelmeyer, who has studied the rising cost of prescription drugs for decades, tells patients it's never a bad idea to look around for a better deal.
But, he believes savings on these type of sites are often exaggerated, telling CBS News, "Sometimes things are too good to be true."
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