You Can Pitch Your Claritin Prescription but When Blockbuster Drugs Go over the Counter, It Can Be a Mixed Bag for Consumers

By Rackl, Lorilyn | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), December 9, 2002 | Go to article overview

You Can Pitch Your Claritin Prescription but When Blockbuster Drugs Go over the Counter, It Can Be a Mixed Bag for Consumers


Rackl, Lorilyn, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Lorilyn Rackl Daily Herald Health Editor

Diane Gray of Streamwood has relied on Claritin to keep her allergy symptoms at bay for nearly a decade.

Supermarkets and pharmacies this week are expected to start selling the popular allergy remedy over the counter, meaning Gray and the 40 million other allergy sufferers in this country will no longer need a doctor's visit and prescription to get the blockbuster drug.

Convenient? Absolutely.

Cheaper? Not likely.

The move is sure to save uninsured allergy sufferers money but will probably prove more costly for the majority of people with prescription drug insurance plans.

A month's supply of Claritin now costs anywhere from $50 to $100 by prescription. Claritin maker Schering-Plough Corp. won't reveal the price of its over-the-counter version, but it's expected to drop to about $20 - the amount Gray is used to shelling out as a co-payment for three-month's worth of the drug.

"If the price goes up a lot, I'll probably have to switch to something else," Gray said. "It's ridiculous. I've been on it a long time. It works very well for me."

Claritin isn't the first prescription drug to make the switch to over-the-counter. More than 700 over-the-counter products use ingredients or dosages that were only available by prescription 25 years ago.

Claritin is likely to intensify that trend, said Linda Suydam, president of Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group representing the makers of over-the-counter medicine.

The wildly popular "purple pill" known as Prilosec is expected to sell without a prescription by this time next year. Like Claritin, the anti-heartburn drug's price will fall, but consumers, not insurers, will have to swallow the entire cost.

"We're at the beginning of a period where we may get some real breakthrough products coming over the counter," Suydam said.

For many consumers like Gray, these "Rx to OTC" switches can be a mixed blessing.

Some doctors groups have strongly criticized the push - started four years ago by a prominent insurance company - to send Claritin over the counter. They say patients will end up having less access to other prescription antihistamines, which insurance companies might be reluctant to cover now that nonprescription Claritin is an option.

Aetna Inc., the country's second-largest health insurer, already says it no longer will cover the antihistamines Allegra, Zyrtec and Claritin's successor, Clarinex, unless doctors make special requests. Even then, patients will be charged the highest co- payment.

"The decisions are being made in the boardroom and not in the exam room as to what's in the patient's best interest," said Dr. William Berger, president of the Arlington Heights-based American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

"Claritin OTC per se is not the issue," Berger said. "We could be having the same conversation in six months when they decide not to cover ... (arthritis therapies) Vioxx or Celebrex and say just go buy some Advil."

What made the Claritin case so unusual is that the matter was brought to the Food and Drug Administration not by the drug's maker, but by an insurance company.

WellPoint Health Network in California had watched its antihistamine costs shoot up 600 percent between 1993 and 1998.

The company looked at the FDA's requirements for over-the- counter drugs and decided there was no reason that so-called second-generation allergy medications such as Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec shouldn't be sold alongside first-generation, nonprescription allergy remedies such as Benadryl. …

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