News Feature | June 9, 2014

Study Finds Selecting Cheaper Eye Drug Could Save U.S. Billions

By Marcus Johnson

Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that if eye doctors began to prescribe a less expensive eye drug for the wet form of macular degeneration or those who have diabetic macular edema, the U.S. Medicare system could save as much as $18 billion over 10 years. Patients suffering from these two conditions currently have two treatment options: bevacizumab (branded as Avastin), which costs $55 per treatment, or ranibizumab (branded as Lucentis) which costs $2,023 per treatment. Ranibizumab is almost 40 times more expensive than bevacizumab, and the researchers found that the drugs are very similar in terms of efficacy, safety, and side effects. Both drugs are injected into the patients’ eyes during visits to the doctor.

Bevacizumab, a cancer treatment that requires costly higher doses when being used to treat cancer, costs less to treat eye disease because it requires a smaller dosage. The same manufacturer which made bevacizumab created ranibizumab. Following FDA approval of the drug for the treatment of eye disease, the company attached a more expensive price tag to the drug.

In addition to the $18 billion that the U.S. Medicare system could save in the next 10 years by prescribing the more affordable bevacizumab drug, the researchers found that patients with co-pays could save $4.6 billion. The entirety of the U.S. health care system could see savings of $29 billion, when accounting for private insurance payments and administrative costs. Federal spending on both drugs totaled $2 billion in 2010, which was about 1/6th of the entire Medicare Part B budget.

The study’s findings are significant considering over 2 million patients currently are suffering from the eye diseases, with the majority being over the age of 65. Researchers estimate that by 2030, that number will be 3 million patients.

 David Hutton, PhD and assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health led the study. “As the Medicare-eligible population continues to grow, identifying savings while maintaining quality patient care is increasingly important,” he said. “People don't like to think there are tradeoffs between health and costs but we certainly do need to think about cost when health care is 18 percent of the GDP and growing.”

This is not the first time research has arrived at this conclusion. A similar study that was carried out in the UK by the NHS in 2012 found that using bevacizumab for wet AMD could save the NHS 84 million pounds a year.