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Ever heard of the drug Lovaza?
It’s a popular drug that helps to lower your triglycerides and raise your ‘good’ cholesterol levels. It doesn’t come cheap. In fact, it’ll run you more than $300 for a month’s supply. But we can’t put a price on health, right?
However, if you take the time to look at the label on a bottle of Lovaza, you’ll see it’s really just made up of omega-3 fish oil. Yep, the very same fish oil you can buy at your local drugstore for around $10.
Is it more effective? Is it safer? Not quite. Check out this side-by-side comparison of Lovaza and your average fish oil supplement and you’ll see they’re pretty much the same thing. In fact, the generic version has an even higher dosage of omega-3 per pill.
So what happened? A drug company basically took fish oil, modified it a little and then put it through the FDA’s approval process. This was a huge investment for the drug company to undergo the extensive testing and clinical trials required by the FDA.
In 2001, it was estimated that it cost roughly $802 million for a drug to be approved by the FDA. By 2014, that number had ballooned to a hair-raising $2.6 billion.
But for the drug company, it was well worth the cost. With the FDA’s ‘stamp of approval,’ they can now charge 100 times more for this common supplement.
Don’t get me wrong. Fish oil is really good. I tell many of my patients to take it. But I would never tell anybody to take Lovaza because it’s so overpriced.
Sad thing is, this is far from the only example of a drug company taking a normal over-the-counter supplement through the FDA process to gouge prices.
Another example is Rozerem, which is a sleep medication similar to melatonin. Since pharmaceutical companies couldn’t patent melatonin and sell it as a drug, they made a chemical that acts like melatonin in the brain.
That’s right. Instead of buying melatonin for $5 at your corner drugstore you can buy a chemical that mimics the effect of it for $500. You’ll also need a prescription for it first, so you can tack a doctor’s visit on that bill.
Even more outrageous, is a new drug called Epidiolex. It’s targeted to treat certain rare forms of severe epilepsy in children –and comes with a whopping $32,000 annual price tag.
What is this miracle drug? It’s actually just cannabidiol, also known as CBD oil, a component extracted from cannabis without the THC.
The pharmaceutical companies didn’t invent CBD. All they did was to take a plant through the FDA’s approval process, change its label, and slap a crazy price tag on it.
Now, what about supply and demand? Of course, pharmaceutical companies want to charge high prices for drugs. But shouldn’t basic economics limit them from charging these outrageous markups?
The reality is, economics doesn’t even come into play thanks to regulators and third-party insurance.
By default, regulation favors drugs that comply with the FDA’s approval process. For example, even if a supplement has well-known benefits, the producers of that supplement are not allowed to officially claim these benefits without FDA approval.
That’s why if you look at a non-prescription-grade fish oil, it will say something vague like ‘Helps Support a Healthy Heart.’ The label can’t say it will improve your HDL levels.
Only the companies that have jumped through all the FDA’s hoops are granted the government’s official ‘stamp of approval’ to make these claims. Given the pharmaceutical companies continue to go through this charade with one product after the next, it’s clear the endorsement is well worth the billion-dollar investment.
In other instances, like that of Epidiolex, regulation even eliminates all non-prescription competition from the market. CBD oil and other marijuana by-products are not legal in some US states. That means for some, this FDA- approved version may be the only legal way to access this remedy.
After all that, you have third-party insurance companies. They help hide these exorbitant prices from the consumers. Without being able to see the actual price tag of a drug, patients typically accept them without question –and they don’t shop around. Pharmaceutical companies bank on consumer apathy.
It’s a screwed-up system, and it doesn’t look like significant changes will happen soon. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. The key to lower your healthcare costs and see overall reform is to take action and become informed about your health care.
Before you purchase a prescription drug, look into the ingredients to save money. Can you get your hands on the generic form, buy the ingredients separately, or is there an over-the-counter version? You might be able to get the same thing at a dramatically lower price.
Be sure to ask your doctor about the alternatives. If you aren’t sure you get the best advice from them, get a second opinion. When it comes to your health, there’s no excuse for not being informed.
This information is intended to help readers be more informed about their health options when speaking with a professional, but it should not be used alone to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition. Be sure to speak to a qualified doctor before taking any action to make sure that your choices reflect your actual health situation.