Eliminating the cost of medications for people who have heart attacks would lead to longer lives and lower overall medical costs, new research suggests.
"These are highly effective medications that are relatively inexpensive, and the events they are designed to prevent are extremely expensive," said study author Dr. Niteesh K. Choudhry, a researcher in the division of pharmacoepidemiology and pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. His report is published in the Feb. 19 issue of Circulation.
The study covered four drugs commonly prescribed after heart attacks -- aspirin, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), and statins. Use of those drugs is relatively low under the current system, in which people share the cost with Medicare or other health insurance plans, Choudhry said. For example, only 46 percent of people take beta blockers after heart attacks, and only 50 percent take cholesterol-lowering statins. Less than 20 percent of heart patients used all four of the medications, according to the study.
The model set up by Choudhry and his colleagues doesn't assume a major increase in compliance with prescriptions, because "cost is just one reason why patients do not take medications," he said, adding that relying on previous studies of drug cost and use, the model assumes an increase of about 14 percent, with perhaps 64 percent of people taking the medicines if they were free.
The result would be an increase in average survival after a heart attack, from the present 8.21 quality-adjusted life years to 8.56 years. "That is small in an absolute sense, but in an aggregate sense, it is very large," Choudhry said.
And medical costs over a lifetime would go down, from the current $114,000 to $111,600, the study added.
"This study adds to a growing body of research showing how important it is to reduce or eliminate patient co-payment for drugs," said Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center in New York. "Medicare should take the lead in forging the creation of drug coverage that allows patients to get the medications their doctors consider vital."
"It certainly makes sense from the medical point of view," said Dr. Richard A. Stein, a professor of medicine at New York University. "Studies have shown that giving even middle-income people free drugs improves outcome. The greatest benefit will go to people in the lower socioeconomic and immigrant population."
But the study is theoretical, Stein noted. "One would like to see some real-world trial to determine whether this works in fact, whether providing free drugs without co-payment would make a difference, he said.
Such a study has begun at Harvard, Choudhry noted. His group is working with a major health insurer, not Medicare, in a trial that assigns some people to get medications without cost, while others will get the standard co-payment.
"It will take several years for us to get answers," Choudhry said. But similar investigations are being started by other medical insurers and corporations, he added.
The idea is potentially applicable to some other chronic conditions, such as congestive heart failure and diabetes, Choudhry noted. And, if the use of recommended medications after a heart attack goes up more than predicted by the model, "the cost savings would be phenomenal," he said.