Healthcare is becoming evermore expensive in the US with every passing day. Insurance companies have jacked up their premiums for life-saving drugs.
They are rapidly adopting a new pricing system for very expensive drugs, asking patients to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for prescriptions for medications that may save their lives or slow the progress of serious diseases.
With the new pricing system, insurers abandoned the traditional arrangement that has patients pay a fixed amount, like $10, $20 or $30 for a prescription, no matter what the drug's actual cost. Instead, they are charging patients a percentage of the cost of certain high-priced drugs, usually 20 to 33 percent, which can amount to thousands of dollars a month.
The system means that the burden of expensive health care can now affect insured people, too.
No one knows how many patients are affected, but hundreds of drugs are priced this new way. They are used to treat diseases that may be fairly common, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, hemophilia, hepatitis C and some cancers. There are no cheaper equivalents for these drugs, so patients are forced to pay the price or do without, says Gina Kolata, writing in the New York Times.
Insurers say the new system keeps everyone's premiums down at a time when some of the most innovative and promising new treatments for conditions like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis can cost $100,000 and more a year.
But the result is that patients may have to spend more for a drug than they pay for their mortgages, more, in some cases, than their monthly incomes.
The system, often called Tier 4, began in earnest with Medicare drug plans and spread rapidly. It is now incorporated into 86 percent of those plans. Some have even higher co-payments for certain drugs, a Tier 5.
The new system sticks seriously ill people with huge bills, said James Robinson, a health economist at the University of California, Berkeley. "It is very unfortunate social policy," Dr. Robinson said. "The more the sick person pays, the less the healthy person pays."
Traditionally, the idea of insurance was to spread the costs of paying for the sick.
"This is an erosion of the traditional concept of insurance," Mr. Mendelson said. "Those beneficiaries who bear the burden of illness are also bearing the burden of cost."
And often, patients say, they had no idea that they would be faced with such a situation.
It happened to Robin Steinwand, 53, who has multiple sclerosis.
In January, shortly after Ms. Steinwand renewed her insurance policy with Kaiser Permanente, she went to refill her prescription for Copaxone. She had been insured with Kaiser for 17 years through her husband, a federal employee, and had had no complaints about the coverage.
She had been taking Copaxone since multiple sclerosis was diagnosed in 2000, buying a 30 days' supply at a time. And even though the drug costs $1,900 a month, Kaiser required only a $20 co-payment.
Not this time. When Ms. Steinwand went to pick up her prescription at a pharmacy near her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, the pharmacist handed her a bill for $325.
There must be a mistake, Ms. Steinwand said. So the pharmacist checked with her supervisor. The new price was correct. Kaiser's policy had changed. Now Kaiser was charging 25 percent of the cost of the drug up to a maximum of $325 per prescription. Her annual cost would be $3,900 and unless her insurance changed or the drug dropped in price, it would go on for the rest of her life.
"I charged it, then got into my car and burst into tears," Ms. Steinwand said.
She needed the drug, she said, because it can slow the course of her disease. And she knew she would just have to pay for it, but it would not be easy.
"It's a tough economic time for everyone," she said. "My son will start college in a year and a half. We are asking ourselves, can we afford a vacation? Can we continue to save for retirement and college?"
Or take the case of Julie Bass of Florida who has metastatic breast cancer and lives on Social Security disability payments.
As she is disabled, she is covered by insurance through a Medicare H.M.O.
(A health maintenance organization (HMO) provides a form of health care coverage in the United States that is fulfilled through hospitals, doctors, and other providers with which the HMO has a contract. The HMO payments are relatively cheaper.)
Ms. Bass, 52, said she had no alternatives to her H.M.O. She said she could not afford a regular Medicare plan, which has co-payments of 20 percent for such things as emergency care, outpatient surgery and scans. That left her with a choice of two Medicare H.M.O's that operate in her region. But of the two H.M.O's, her doctors accept only Wellcare.
Now, she said, one drug her doctor may prescribe to control her cancer is Tykerb. But her insurer, Wellcare, classifies it as Tier 4, and she knows she cannot afford it.
Wellcare declined to say what Tykerb might cost, but its list price according to a standard source, Red Book, is $3,480 for 150 tablets, which may last a patient 21 days. Wellcare requires patients to pay a third of the cost of its Tier 4 drugs.
"For everybody in my position with metastatic breast cancer, there are times when you are stable and can go off treatment," Ms. Bass said. "But if we are progressing, we have to be on treatment, or we will die."
"People's eyes need to be opened," she said. "They need to understand that these drugs are very costly, and there are a lot of people out there who are struggling with these costs."