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Heart drugs too costly for many

There are very effective drugs to prevent heart attacks and stroke, but they are expensive and must be taken for life, creating a huge financial burden.  By NBC's Robert Bazell.
/ Source: NBC News

Not that long ago most drugs were used to treat disease. Now there are very effective drugs to prevent disease, especially heart attacks and stroke, but they are expensive and must be taken for life. That creates a huge financial burden even for people who have health insurance.

After Beth Steinhauser's heart attack, her doctor told her to watch her diet, exercise and take the cholesterol-lowering treatment known as statins

"If I didn't take a cholesterol-lowering drug,” explains Steinhauser, “I would probably have another heart attack.

But the drugs cost too much and she says she will soon have to travel to Canada to buy them.

Meanwhile, Dennis Rising was born with a cholesterol level so high he had a heart attack and small stroke in his 30s. He needs the statin drugs to survive, but even with generous health insurance, the cost of the drugs strains his budget.

"My friends go on vacations that I can't take with them,” says Rising. “I stay home because I can't afford to go."

Statins, including Lipitor, Zocor and Pravochol, make up one of the great success stories of medicine. Study after study involving hundreds of thousands of people show the drugs dramatically reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke -- even for people with cholesterol in the normal range.

The latest guidelines say that everyone who has had coronary artery disease or is at high risk for it should be on statin therapy. That adds up to 36 million Americans.

But only 13 million are actually getting the drugs.  The cost -- $2 to $3 a day for life -- is often the barrier.

Dr. Thomas Pearson of the University of Rochester says the problems with statins are a good example of why the health system needs to be changed.

"We know these drugs lower heart-disease risk by about 35 or 40 percent,” explains Pearson. “So with the inability to pay for their drugs now, they're gonna pay for expensive hospitalizations, procedures, and even early deaths later."

The system, experts agree, needs to catch up to the science to allow people to afford breakthrough medications that prevent deadly disease.