Melville and Carmel: A Flexible Solution for Cutting Health Costs

Posted October 23, 2011 at 5:11am

The super committee brings to the forefront, once again, the significant challenges related to health care costs and access currently facing patients, physicians and policymakers. While there are many difficult decisions to be made, there are also some straightforward solutions that deserve serious, timely consideration.

One example of this is access to over-the-counter medications, which save patients valuable time and the health care system billions of dollars.

OTC medications save time and money for the millions of Americans who rely on them to treat many ailments and injuries. These medicines play an important role in our nation’s health care system, with almost 90 percent of physicians recommending patients try to address many ailments with self-care interventions, including the use of OTC medication, before seeking professional care.

With this in mind, it is unfortunate that a provision within the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires millions of patients using flexible spending arrangements, or other tax-preferred accounts, to make an unnecessary trip to their doctor to obtain a prescription to be eligible for reimbursement. This provision in the law discourages roughly 19 million American families from managing and saving for their own health care needs and expenses. 

The significance of expanded access to convenient, cost-effective frontline therapies cannot be understated — especially given the fact that our nation could face a shortage of about 150,000 physicians in the next 15 years. Fortunately, there is a growing drumbeat to reverse this provision as health care policy leaders and key stakeholders recognize the value of OTC medication. We commend Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Reps. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) for introducing the Restoring Access to Medication Act. If passed, this bill would repeal the new restriction placed on purchasing OTC medications with FSAs and similar accounts. 

Repeal of this provision can save time and money for patients, physicians and our health care system. A recent survey  by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association revealed that primary care physicians estimated, on average, that 10 percent or more of office visits were unnecessary and could have been avoided by self-management, including the use of OTC medication.

In fact, according to an associated cost-savings study, $5.2 billion could be saved by consumers and taxpayers annually if only half of the unnecessary visits were avoided. By appropriately managing common health care symptoms, patients are empowered to use the resources available to them to manage minor ailments, and physicians, in turn, are able to better focus on the patients who really need them. 

The Restoring Access to Medication Act is a bipartisan effort to restore an important incentive for consumers to use efficient health care options that save time and money. Congress should pass this legislation and allow patients to once again be reimbursed for OTC medications under flexible spending arrangements without a prescription.

Scott Melville is president and CEO of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. Peter W. Carmel is president of the American Medical Association.