Employers Supporting Those Amazing Drugs, But Must They Prescribe Themselves?

The New York Times reports on a shift in attidude among several employers with regards to coverage of medications. Republicans have promoted Health Saving’s Accounts and other measures which force patients to pay more out of pocket, arguing that this will hold down prices. (I’ve discussed the problems with this approach here, here, and here.)

Now some employers are reversing course, convinced that their pennywise approach does not always reduce long-term costs. In the most radical of various moves, a number of employers are now giving away drugs to help workers manage chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and depression.

Major employers like Marriott International, Pitney Bowes, the carpet maker Mohawk Industries and Maine’s state government have introduced free drug programs to avoid paying for more expensive treatments down the road.

Companies now recognize that “if you get people’s obesity down, cholesterol down, asthma down, you save a lot of money,” said Uwe E. Reinhardt, a health economist at Princeton University.

Despite the Bush administration’s efforts to promote “consumer directed” health care, many companies are recognizing the limits to shifting too much of the cost of medical care to employees. Experience, Professor Reinhardt said, is contradicting the theory that “patients will be more prudent shoppers for health care if they ache financially when they ache physically.”

Reducing long term costs is one benefit. Others might be looking at the political ramifications. The report notes that, “Another motive for the business world could be to stave off a greater government involvement in health insurance, now that most presidential candidates and other politicians are promoting health care reform.”

Making prescription drugs affordable will improve the quality of care and reduce health care costs in the long run. As I noted earlier in the week, these drugs do not prescribe themselves. It takes physician exams to diagnose the problem, to determine which drugs would provide the best treatment, and to monitor the effects of the medications. Laboratory and sometimes other tests are needed to help diagnose the problems, and to monitor the course of the disease and the effects of the medications. Making medications more affordable helps, but it is also important that these employees also have affordable medical coverage beyond pharmaceutical coverage.

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