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Web Site Helps Consumers Shop for Drugs

Consumer Reports compares prices, effectiveness for free

THURSDAY, Dec. 9, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Buyers have long gone to Consumer Reports to choose their sedans, toaster ovens, and stereos, but now they can turn to it for their drugs as well.

The magazine on Thursday launched an educational and outreach initiative called Best Buy Drugs, which includes a free Web site and will compare medications in terms of price, effectiveness, and safety. One drug in each of several categories will earn a "Best Buy" distinction.

"We know that consumers are very concerned and confused about finding prescription drugs that are proven to be safe and effective and that they can afford," Joel Gurin, executive vice president of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, said at a news conference. "We asked ourselves, 'What if we can do for drugs what we do for cars and cameras?' "

The organization was spurred to action because, Gurin said, "the cost of drugs is becoming a national crisis."

"Millions of Americans cannot afford the medications they need," added Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "That means that we have people out there who cannot afford to take any medications at all, or have to skip a pill or two or inappropriately break a pill and save half for later." The situation is worse for elderly people, who generally need more medications and have fewer financial resources, Benjamin said.

According to Gurin, the Best Buy tool will enable consumers to save as much as $2,000 per year without sacrificing quality of treatment or safety. "Those savings multiply if you are taking more than one drug or are taking a drug over several years," he said.

Consumers Union also hopes that Best Buy will facilitate conversations between patients and their doctors about the best treatment. "The goal is to help save on medical costs, but it can also be a great tool to help patients and doctors talk together about treatment," Gurin said.

The initiative takes its drug effectiveness information from the Drug Effectiveness Review Project (DERP), which is now used in a dozen states. "DERP looks at all of the credible studies that have been done worldwide, and their process is just impeccable," said Consumers Union health policy director Gail Shearer. "It's highly peer-reviewed and totally transparent." Consumer Reports provides additional data and analysis. Price information is based on average retail prices paid in cash by consumers at pharmacies, and will be monitored monthly.

The Best Buy project is kicking off with three drug categories -- cholesterol-lowering statins, proton pump inhibitors for heartburn and acid reflux, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for arthritis and pain -- and will be adding more each month until it has 20 categories.

In the statin category, generic lovastatin emerged as the Best Buy Drug for people who need to reduce their LDL ("bad") cholesterol by less than 40 percent. The drug costs about $1 a day, compared with others that can cost more than $4 per day. Lipitor (atorvastatin) was the Best Buy choice for people who need to reduce their LDL cholesterol by more than 40 percent, with a potential savings of about $31 per month, Consumer Reports said.

For acid reflux and heartburn, the over-the-counter drug Prilosec OTC (omeprazole) was the Best Buy Drug. It costs about 79 cents a day, or one-fifth of the next cheapest drug, the magazine said.

For treatment of arthritis and other forms of pain, generic ibuprofen and generic salsalate emerged as the Best Buy Drugs. Both cost about $24 to $30 a month, resulting in monthly savings of $180 to $188, according to the magazine.

Consumer Reports will also be doing outreach to doctors, pharmacists, seniors, and low-income groups. In particular, it has enlisted the aid of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare to reach older people who do not have Internet access.

As more consumers get turned on to the project and change their drug choices, Gurin is hoping it will force the drug industry to compete more aggressively on price. Adhering to longstanding Consumer Reports policy, pharmaceutical companies will not be allowed to use the Best Buy designation in their advertising or marketing.

"In order to achieve affordability we need public policy change, but more information in the market is a good thing," Benjamin said.

Meanwhile, several leading health organizations are also putting together a project that will offer free, online access to user-friendly medical research.

PatientInform, scheduled to begin next spring, is a joint effort of the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Diabetes Association as well as leading scholarly and medical publishers and medical societies. The project will initially focus on the three diseases represented by the sponsoring organizations. Like Consumer Reports' initiative, PatientInform is an effort to keep consumers abreast of often complicated information that can directly affect their health.

More information

To learn more about the new pharmaceutical initiative, visit Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.

SOURCES: Dec. 9, 2004 news conference with Joel Gurin, executive vice president, Consumers Union; Gail Shearer, health policy director, Consumers Union; Georges C. Benjamin, M.D., executive director, American Public Health Association
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