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Former Drug Rep Now Educates Doctors on How To Avoid High Cost Meds

Using ‘Those Powers For Good’

Cardiologist John Bennett got the idea to hire pharma reps a few years ago, after he became CDPHP’s chief executive. He knew reps are smart, genial and motivated. Overhiring by pharma had put many back on the job market.

His sales pitch to them, he says half-jokingly, was: “You know everything they taught you in big pharma? How would you like to use those powers for good?”

Pharma companies spend billions on TV ads, doctor blandishments and expensive salespeople to keep prescriptions flowing.

Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and other sellers responded to critics a few years ago by restricting gifts of entertainment, coffee mugs and some meals. But the industry’s ethics code still allows lavish consulting contracts for doctors and sponsorship of physician conferences as well as meals for doctors and their staffs who listen to an “informational presentation” from sales reps touting expensive pills.

“When those products go generic, nobody’s promoting them anymore,” Courtney said. Generics makers lack big marketing budgets. CDPHP’s remedy: The insurer promotes generics with its own reps.

“It’s a great idea,” said Alan Sorensen, an economist at the University of Wisconsin who has studied drug prices. “Even a small moving of the needle on their [doctors’] prescribing behavior can have a pretty big impact on costs.”

At first the team concentrated on educating doctors about cheaper alternatives to Lipitor, a widely prescribed cholesterol-lowering medicine, and Nexium, for stomach problems. That saved around $10 million the first year, much in the form of copayments that would have been owed by plan members.

Recently the plan has focused on Seroquel, a branded antipsychotic that costs far more than a similar generic. Switching to the generic saves $600 to $1,000 a month, estimates Eileen Wood, the insurer’s vice president of pharmacy and health quality.

CDPHP’s repurposed reps have helped keep the insurer’s annual drug-cost increases to single-digit percentages, whereas without them and other measures “we would certainly be well into double-digit” increases, she said.

Educating doctors about drug costs is part of a larger push for “transparency” in an industry where Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt says consumers face the same experience as somebody shopping in Macy’s blindfolded.

Current research by the University of Wisconsin’s Sorensen finds physicians with access to data about drug prices and insurance coverage are more likely to prescribe generics.

That gives Courtney and his colleagues a fighting chance, even if, he said, “we don’t have the freewheeling, unlimited green Amex card like I did back in the day.”

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KHN’s coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold FoundationKaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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