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Providing these medicines for free had a "distressingly modest" effect on patients' willingness to take them, Dr. Lee Goldman of Columbia University and Dr. Arnold Epstein of the Harvard School of Public Health wrote in an editorial in the medical journal.
The Commonwealth Fund, a foundation devoted to improving the health care system, helped pay for the study, and some of authors consult for insurance companies.
In the study, the total number of heart attacks, strokes, cases of chest pain or heart failure and other such problems was significantly lower in the group offered free medicine.
That meant that an additional 2 of every 100 people were spared such problems because they were offered free medicines. Doctors suspect the difference between the groups would have been greater if more people had actually filled their prescriptions.
Costs dropped 26 percent for patients in the free drug group compared with the others, partly because of fewer doctor visits, lab tests and hospitalizations.
After about a year, total medical costs for the insurer, including follow-ups, hospitalizations and doctor's appointments, averaged $69,997 for those with the usual coverage and $64,726 for those offered free medicines. That was not considered a significant difference statistically, but insurers looking at the bottom line would still view it as worthwhile.
Dr. Lonny Reisman, an author of the study and chief medical officer for Aetna, said the company plans to offer some of these drugs free or with a reduced copay to some heart attack survivors and is considering doing do so for other chronic conditions such as diabetes and chronic lung disease.
The study may persuade other insurers to do the same, Goldman and Epstein said.
Heart Association: http://www.americanheart.org/
New England Journal: http://www.nejm.org/
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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