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Medicare to test paying for flu drugs

Medicare will test the idea of paying for antiviral drugs for some patients who catch influenza, the  government’s health insurance plan for the elderly said Friday.
/ Source: Reuters

Medicare will test the idea of paying for antiviral drugs for some patients who catch influenza, the U.S. government’s health insurance plan for the elderly said Friday.

The so-called demonstration project will allow patients who are not enrolled for drug coverage to get help in paying for four drugs that can treat influenza -- Roche AG’s Tamiflu, also known as oseltamivir; zanamivir, sold by GlaxoSmithKline under the brand name Relenza; and the older drugs amantadine and rimantadine.

“There are prescription drugs that have been proven to prevent the flu and its serious complications, and Medicare is taking steps to make these drugs more affordable,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

“This demonstration program will provide useful evidence on how prescription drug coverage affects the health and costs for Medicare beneficiaries ahead of the drug benefit in 2006.”

Each Medicare patient can, through the end of May, get up to two prescriptions filled during the demonstration period.

Medicare, funded jointly by the federal government and each state, wants to find out if it is worth paying for these drugs.

When Medicare pays for a drug, private insurers often also follow suit. Medicare coverage of a drug can greatly boost its sales.

Health officials say the 2004-2005 influenza season has so far looked relatively mild for the United States.

But there is a shortage of influenza vaccine, caused by the closure of Chiron Corp’s British vaccine facility. The United States has about 60 million doses of vaccine made by Aventis-Pasteur, plus some available as needed from other makers.

MedImmune’s FluMist, a nasal vaccine approved only for healthy adults and children, is also available but analysts have said it does not look like many people have opted to take that vaccine.

Influenza kills an average of 36,000 Americans every year and puts 200,000 into the hospital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 185 million Americans should get a flu vaccine every year but tens of millions do not.