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Free Meds Offer Significant Benefits for Heart Patients

Author: Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor

Heart attack patients who received free medications demonstrated lower rates of rehospitalization compared to those who had prescription co-pays. These patients, however, did not experience a reduction in the rate of revascularization to reopen clogged arteries, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2011.

In the study, which is published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers also determined that patients who received free medications were more likely to their medicine as prescribed.

Following a myocardial infarction, patients are often sent home with several prescriptions to prevent further heart problems. However, many patients fail to take their medications as prescribed, researchers found.

In a study of 5855 heart attack patients, 2845 paid nothing for statins and other medications shown to improve outcomes after a myocardial infarction. Those patients were 4% to 6% more likely to take them than the 3010 patients who had co-pays.

Researchers found that 17.6% of those with free medications had a major cardiac event (heart attack, angina, stroke, or heart failure) or underwent revascularization, compared to 18.8% of those with co-pays. This difference was not statistically significant; however, when assessed separately from revascularization, there was a significant reduction in the rate of major cardiac events. After about a year, the rate of heart attacks, angina and heart failure dropped 14% in the patients getting free medications.

Further, patients saved 26% on their overall out-of-pocket healthcare costs. Because they had improved health, they paid fewer copayments for doctor’s visits in addition to the savings from no drug co-pays, researchers said.

“Medication adherence is very low and that’s a major public health problem,” said lead author Niteesh K. Choudhry, MD, PhD, associate professor at Harvard University and associate physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “There are many reasons why only half of patients adhere to long-term therapies and cost appears to be one reason, even for those with insurance.”

Based on the study’s findings, Dr. Choudhry recommends that insurers consider paying for the total cost of heart medications after a heart attack.

“The strategy we evaluated improves quality of care, increases medication adherence, makes healthcare more affordable for patients and doesn’t appear to increase overall spending, and so appears very attractive for patients and payers,” he said in a statement. “We have spent billions of dollars developing medicines and testing them. Making sure patients actually take those medicines is crucial.”