Life Science Compliance Update

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December 11, 2013

ProPublica Criticizes Prescribing Brand-Name Drugs with Little Consideration to the Benefit


A recent ProPublica article and prescriber checkup database are designed to attack physicians for prescribing brand name drugs, and criticizing Medicare for failing to consider this prescribing practice. "Medicare is wasting hundreds of millions of dollars a year by failing to rein in doctors who routinely give patients pricey name-brand drugs when cheaper generic alternatives are available," ProPublica states.

ProPublica takes issue with Medicare's low income subsidy, which they argue encourages "wasteful name-brand prescribing" by keeping co-pays cheap for qualifying low-income patients. By merely stating the fact that generic drugs cost less than name-brand drugs, the article simplifies three issues: (1) Medicare patient's choice in the prescriptions, (2) the actual medical effect of brand-name drugs, and (3) the overall economic effect of name-brand prescription if lost wages and expensive hospitalizations are factored in.

In a somewhat more balanced article, ProPublica interviewed several doctors about the reasons for prescribing name-brand drugs. Several stated that patients often request or demand name-brand products. Others commented on the actual efficacy of the name-brand drugs. Dr. Alexander Gershman, a Los Angeles urologist stated that "[i]t would be wrong to say to physicians, 'You have to all prescribe generics' because I think this will tremendously limit the quality of the drugs to the patients." 

ProPublica's article hiding behind Medicare savings is overlooking the potential benefits of brand name drugs. One only has to look at the patient communities in areas such as HIV, Heart Disease and Cancer to see the overall benefit from brand name drugs overtime and that eventually all drugs become generic.

Doctors should feel comfortable advising patients about brand and generic medication options, and, they should prescribe the more effective choice if the patient can afford it.

However, the article's broad scope skirts the issue that each Medicare patient has a unique set of needs. Jumping to the conclusion that physician-industry collaboration is the root of the problem, as ProPublica often does, is, once again, not the answer.

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