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First HIV drug co-op cuts costs

By
KOREN CAPOZZA, UPI Science News

SAN FRANCISCO, April 1 (UPI) -- A new drug discount service offered by an HIV advocacy group is offering cut rate -- up to 50 percent off -- pharmaceutical prices to its members.

The novel program is helping to bridge the gap between the prohibitive price of new drugs to treat the human innunodeficiency virus and the ability of low-income patients to pay for them.

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In recent years, drug-buying cooperatives have begun to serve a traditionally neglected consumer niche -- low-income seniors and the uninsured. Existing programs, however, have focused almost exclusively on seniors and few have organized disease-specific patient groups into purchasing co-ops with price negotiating leverage.

The BodyPlus program, launched in January, offers major discounts and free delivery for nearly every HIV prescription drug dispensed in the United States. So far, the initiative has been well received by patients -- it is on track to have 2,000 new members by the end of the year.

The BodyPlus grew out of the efforts of a popular HIV/AIDS Web resource site called TheBody.com to serve its audience.

"The Body has 450,000 annual visitors and 80,000 are HIV-positive and taking anti-viral medications, so that represents a pretty significant audience that's interested in saving money on pharmaceuticals," said James Robertson, The Body's business development director.

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Robertson estimates that those 80,000 visitors represent $1.5 billion in annual drug sales.

The annual cost for antiviral medication for an HIV patient can be as high as $10,000 a year. Without health insurance, the cost of the HIV drug regimen can be financially devastating to patients.

Recognizing the need for low-cost drug options, The Body negotiated a contract with a pharmacy benefit manager, Express Scripts, which agreed to provide discount pharmaceutical service for The Body's members across the country.

"Programs like this are essential for money management while you are trying treat your HIV/AIDS," said John Riley, work services benefits counselor for AIDS Project Los Angeles.

"Most insurance companies won't pay for some drugs and will opt for a less expensive therapy. If the patient has failed on some drug and needs a drug that's not on the formulary, this type of program really helps," he said.

So far, the members most interested in the new program appear to be the uninsured and patients whose insurance does not cover the newer, brand-name drugs which are significantly more expensive. Unlike other drug-buying clubs, there is no membership fee or income requirement to join the program.

"The people I can see this working for are people with too high of an income for AIDS drug assistance programs who are paying cash anyway or people who have insurance and are paying a percentage co-pay," said Jane Gelfand, benefits counselor for Positive Resources in San Francisco.

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If this pilot effort proves successful, it may set a precedent for how patient groups with particular diseases -- from breast cancer to diabetes -- can band together to negotiate discount rates for the prescription drugs needed to treat their condition.

"We hope this sort of program will be a model for other disease states and other industries," said Robertson.

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