by Angela Maas

While HHS has taken multiple steps toward lowering prescription drug prices, the agency’s latest proposal has been its most contentious so far. And while it may succeed in providing consumers more information on drugs’ wholesale acquisition costs (WACs), industry experts wonder how effective it really will be in letting consumers know what they will pay for a drug.

The proposed rule would require direct-to-consumer (DTC) television ads for prescription drugs covered by Medicare or Medicaid that have a WAC of more than $35 per month to include that list price in the ad.

Barbara McAneny, M.D., president of the American Medical Association, said while the agency opposes DTC ads for prescription drugs, “as long as the practice is allowed, the ads should come with at least a small dose of transparency.…While this proposed rule alone won’t remove the often-misleading nature of prescription drug ads, it will give consumers a data point that is currently unavailable. That is a step in the right direction.”

And Frederick Isasi, J.D., M.P.H., executive director of Families USA, said, “Today’s announcement is a welcome step to rein in the cost of prescription drugs. People will be shocked to know how much their drugs really cost….This policy will focus public attention on the abusive prices charged by many pharmaceutical manufacturers.”

Others within the industry, however, question how effective the proposed rule, if implemented, would really be.

“Patients do not typically pay a drug’s list price at the pharmacy counter,” points out Elan Rubinstein, Pharm.D., principal at EB Rubinstein Associates. “Showing the average monthly list price in direct-to-consumer advertising may not be meaningful. It could also frighten some people enough not to take prescribed medication as directed, thinking that they would have to actually pay this amount. It is not possible for a manufacturer to show estimated out-of-pocket cost, because this is highly variable.”

In addition, he tells AIS Health, a different cost for a drug at the pharmacy than what is shown in an ad may confuse patients, making it likely that they’ll contact their providers’ offices, which will need to take the time to explain the discrepancy.