The Food and Drug Administration decided two weeks ago that the popular prescription allergy drugs Allegra, Claritin and Zyrtec were safe enough to be sold over-the-counter.
The FDA made the right move but it did not consider the economic impact of its decision. This decision should be seen as a battle between drug companies and insurance providers: Two profit-hungry giants unconcerned with public health.
In one corner we have the drug companies who are fearful that the change in status of their expensive medications will lower their profit margins. According to the Washington Post, a single Claritin pill costs about $2.12 in the United States, while in Europe where the medication has been sold over the counter for ten years it costs about $0.70. The drug companies argue that consumers will misdiagnose their symptoms without a visit to a doctor. This implies that U.S. citizens are less capable of identifying hay fever than their European counterparts. Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec are advertised as being safer and having fewer side effects than cheaper, over-the-counter drugs. But maybe it”s this advertising that is driving the price up. According to IMS Health, a London-based analyst, last year Schering-Plough, the makers of Claritin, spent $48 million directly marketing their product. It is no wonder prices continue to skyrocket.
Fighting for the reclassification are the insurance companies who are tired of shelling out money for prescription allergy medicine. If the drugs are sold over-the-counter, insurance will no longer cover them. This hurts those who depend on insurance to help them with medication. Even at $15 a bottle instead of $50, the price can be out of reach for many.
Many doctors have also argued against the change. Here too, profits play a role. With the direct advertising campaigns, many more people go to doctors to request brand-name medication. Spending on prescription drugs rose 19 percent last year, resulting in record numbers at the doctor”s office.
Today, they are fighting over a cure for a runny nose and maybe that isn”t so important, but tomorrow the argument could be about an AIDS drug or a cancer remedy. Major drug companies have already waged war against companies that produce cheap, generic AIDS drugs for sale in Africa. A life-and-death situation for millions couldn”t draw a drop of pity from the drug companies when it looked like it would cut into profits.
All of these institutions are supposed to be aiding the public, but when it comes down to it, huge profit at the cost of health is the bottom line. Increasing use of effective but expensive new drugs has been a main cause of the double-digit rise in health care costs.
So, what is the right move? If every trail leads to higher consumer costs and greater corporate profit, it means our system needs to change. A balance must be achieved between the insurance and drug companies” need to turn profits and the public”s fundamental right to be healthy. Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec should be sold over-the-counter so those without health insurance don”t have to drive to Canada to buy the same pills at fair prices. Insurance companies should pay for many of the well-established over-the-counter drugs.
The battle being fought today is not being fought by the right people. The public should demand fair prices and a little compassion from those who hold our health in their hands. Corporate behemoths fighting over the margin should not dictate our national health policies.