HealthJune 09, 2023

Rising costs of prescription drugs could drive alternate options

As drug prices continue to rise, consumers are looking for alternative options and solutions to save on costs according to a Wolters Kluwer 2022 survey.

Rising drug costs are pushing people to forgo needed care, groceries, and even rent, causing many Americans to warm up to new, more affordable ways of getting their meds.

That’s according to a 2022 US consumer survey commissioned by Wolters Kluwer. The survey found that consumers would be willing to get scripts directly from pharmacists, buy mail-order pills, or pursue other options entirely if it meant lower costs.

The findings contextualize broader trends across the pharmacy landscape, such as the expanding role of pharmacists and the need for better healthcare access. And patients are becoming more amenable to these market alternatives, creating new implications for providers throughout the care continuum.

Here’s what the survey of more than 1,000 US adults found and what it all could mean for the future of pharmacy.

Ongoing concerns with the rising costs of prescription drugs

When asked about their experience with drug costs over the past few years, 64% of respondents said the prices for their meds have gone up. Those increases often outpaced inflation, with 45% of people saying price hikes have exceeded 10%.

That perspective aligns with troubling statistics nationwide, which show that thousands of product prices have undergone rapid growth. One report from the US Department of Health and Human Services found that 1,216 drugs saw a faster-than-inflation increase from 2021 to 2022, with an average surge of 31.6% for those drugs.

The affordability crisis, which is occurring alongside a volatile economy, is significantly impacting consumers’ day-to-day lives. The Wolters Kluwer survey found that over the past few years, more than two in five respondents (44%) have chosen not to fill a prescription because of the cost. Multiplied across the US adult population, that’s more than 100 million people who potentially skipped or delayed needed care because of cost.

What consumers are willing to try to reduce costs

The most obvious thing consumers are willing to try is simply switching drugs: Just over half (56%) of respondents said they often ask their providers about lower-cost meds. But if cheaper therapies aren’t available, people often explore new ways to get the same drugs for less.

According to the survey, consumers might consider the following actions:

Seeking out alternate prescribers

Primary care providers have long wielded the pen for everyday prescriptions, but Americans may be ready for a change in how and by whom those scripts get written. Roughly seven in 10 (72%) respondents said they’d be open to having meds prescribed by a specially trained pharmacist instead of a doctor.

They not only feel comfortable with pharmacists prescribing meds, but also think drug stores may play a greater role in healthcare delivery overall. When asked to look ahead five years, 61% of people said they believe pharmacies, retail clinics, and/or pharmacy clinics — not doctor’s offices — will provide most primary care.

Transitioning from scripts to over-the-counter (OTC) drugs

Some people may be questioning whether the prescription process is necessary at all. More than three-quarters of respondents (77%) said many prescription drugs that are widely used should be made available over the counter — and 75% said that transitioning those drugs transitioned to OTC would help lower costs without compromising safety.

These consumers are keying into something that has long been in motion, as drugs like statins and birth control have become the subject of a national OTC debate. But while transitioning can improve affordability and accessibility for many drugs, some exceptions may complicate that prospect.

Take the overdose-reversing therapy Narcan, for example. As a prescription, it’s free or at least low cost for most people with insurance, but if made available over the counter, may not be covered at the same price by those same health plans.

Accessing mail-by-order drugs

More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents said that if it meant lower costs, they would prefer to receive their medication by mail. That’s a nod to the rapidly expanding market of mail-by-order pharmacies, which saw a 35% increase in activity from 2016 to 2021.

Unsurprisingly, people with children are more likely to feel that way: 82% of respondents with a child in the household preferred mailed meds versus 74% of respondents without children. Families with a household income above $50,000 also skewed more likely to embrace mail-order meds.

Conducting genomic testing

While the survey didn’t explicitly ask if consumers would be more willing to undergo genomic testing if it lowered drug costs, trends in consumer interest point to a rise in personalized care — and the pharmacist’s role in facilitating it.

More than four in five respondents said they’d provide a sample for genomic analysis if it would improve the effectiveness (82%) and safety (82%) of their medications — the two factors that play an outsized role in value-based care, and thus, costs. Moreover, genetic testing has been found cost-effective in various scenarios, such as when matching oncology patients to therapies.

Even so, testing can itself be prohibitively expensive, which leads consumers to believe insurance companies should be obligated to cover it. Almost nine in 10 respondents (88%) said health insurance plans should cover genomic testing costs if it helps avoid ineffective and/or unnecessary drug prescribing.

Implications for pharmacy, staff, and operations

These findings are likely not revolutionary for anyone working within or adjacent to pharmacies. Healthcare stakeholders — especially pharmacy leaders — have been discussing and adapting to high drug costs and the pharmacist’s shifting role for quite some time. In some cases, policy has responded accordingly, including the Inflation Reduction Act’s efforts to control drug costs and state laws such as Oregon’s, which allows pharmacists to prescribe birth control.

But this consumer sentiment survey revealed many implications — especially around safety-related factors — that leaders should consider. More than two in five (43%) respondents said they are concerned about the safety of getting medication advice from someone other than their primary care provider. Despite that relatively high rate, only 10% said they would only trust their doctors to prescribe them medications.

While safety concerns aren’t widely discouraging people from considering alternate prescribers, they are still top-of-mind for many. As pharmacy leaders embrace these expanded responsibilities (and a potentially expanding shelf with the possible addition of new OTC drugs), they’ll need to be aware of potential knowledge gaps and stay ready with compassionate education.

Many drug stores may need to consider an entry point into the mail-order universe, as more people — particularly busy families — are gravitating toward Amazon and programs driven by pharmacy benefit managers. Smaller pharmacies that offer services such as delivery can give their customers the best of both worlds: the convenience of not having to leave home and the benefit of working with a hometown business.

Meeting consumers where they are

The rising costs of prescription drugs have hit US households hard, and in their financial pain, many people are reconsidering established routines. As these sentiments create significant market changes, pharmacy leaders should strive to meet their consumers’ needs and prepare for operational impacts.

Learn how to stay adaptable with our Pharmacy Next insights, where you can see the latest results from a new 2023 survey and download the 2022 survey report, executive brief, and other essential resources.

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