Friday, January 13, 2017
The Blue Inhaler
I carry an albuterol inhaler as my quick relief medication for asthma. I use it infrequently, which is good news for me and good news for my asthma. Known in many other countries as the blue inhaler or the blue puffer, albuterol/salbutemol is a tremendously popular and effective relief inhaler. First brought to market in the 1980's, sales of the blue inhaler have grown as have rates of asthma diagnosis.
Traveling recently in the E.U., my albuterol inhaler stopped working short of its full number of available measured doses. And so I was off to my neighborhood pharmacy in Ponta Delgada, hoping that a licensed pharmacist might be able to prescribe inhaled albuterol over the counter and spare me the quest for the Centro de Saude on New Year's Day. Frequent travelers are no doubt aware that certain prescription only medications in the United States may be sold over the counter in other countries or dispensed at the discretion of a licensed pharmacist, even in the absence of a prescription, in still other countries.
One glance at the Pharmacia Moderna receipt found above will tell you I was successful. I was seen quickly by a licensed pharmacist who discussed my symptoms, examined my current inhaler (stunned, it seemed, that the United States would allow a relief inhaler to be packaged in bright red or anything other than the blue that is the color coded signal to asthmatics the world over that a rescue inhaler is at hand), and sold me a full size blue salbutemol inhaler for just under 3.75 Euros. I paid for it with pocket coins.
Today, I will not discuss drug pricing in the Açores beyond mentioning that Portugal (the Açores are an Autonomous Region of Portugal) uses a reference drug pricing system to set prescription drug prices. The reference involved is to drug pricing in several other countries (varying yearly, but often including Spain). Portugal, in short, is not interested in being an outlier in prescription drug acquisition cost nor an outlier in prescription drug cost to consumers. For some years, in fact, Portugal's citizens paid less than other reference countries for certain pharmaceuticals, something that has been increasingly altered by a Memorandum of Understanding relating to drug costs, promoted by the E.U. after the latest financial crisis.
The price to me was a remarkable ten percent of my U.S. commercially health insured co-pay cost for the differently-named albuterol inhaler. The contents, however, were the same, though the color of the casing on my damaged inhaler disturbed my Açorean pharmacist and the lack of a dose meter mechanism on the blue inhaler sold to me in Ponta Delgada disturbed me. I have written elsewhere about the problems of relief or rescue inhalers without dose meters.
What was equally stunning, however, was the ease of the entire encounter. I had a new relief inhaler in hand inside of ten minutes. No visit to the the clinic, no transferral of the prescription from the clinic to the pharmacia, no complicated health insurance negotiations over whether a new inhaler would be covered (it was broken) or not covered (my request for a new inhaler was untimely by calendar standards).
This made me want to know if the blue inhaler is an over the counter drug in other countries. Sure enough, the blue puffer can be bought in a U.K. supermarket, in a drug store without prescription in Australia and Spain, and elsewhere all for about the price I paid at Pharmacia Moderna. Tracking backward to check if a push had ever been made to allow Albuterol inhalers to be sold over the counter in the U.S., I learned of a relatively recent effort by the FDA to generate discussion about the possible creation of a third class of medicines: over the counter, over the counter with conditions of safe use, and prescription.
Last widely discussed in 2012, the FDA held hearings on the OTC/SCU category's appropriateness for formerly prescription only items like steroidal asthma inhalers. Multiple days of hearing on the idea produced varied positions, including AMA opposition to the encroachment on physician scope of practice. One AMA spokesperson supported pharmacist supervision of OTC/SCU prescribing, as soon as the relevant pharmacist had gone to medical school. The FDA proposal went nowhere.
I know of no place in the U.S. where OTC/SCU prescribing involving steroid inhalers has gained any traction after the 2012 blowup at
the FDA, though pharmacist prescribing is developing a bit of a track record in Canada and in the U.K. Our own state-based experiments with pharmacist prescribing authority are a mixed bag of programs based on dependent authority (collaborative practice with licensed physicians) and independent authority (think Oregon, Washington, and California's hormonal contraceptives statutes) but they have proven extremely limited in scope.
And the blue inhaler? Google it, if you like, and read all the apparently U.S. based articles and chat board discussions on how to survive an asthma attack without a relief inhaler.
"The price to me was a remarkable ten percent of my U.S. commercially health insured co-pay cost for the differently-named albuterol"
Wow, you're paying a $40 *co-pay* for an albuterol inhaler.
I wonder if the EU version has the same propellant as that used in the US? That's what jacked the US prices - a new protocol forced a change from the old propellant gas and as the pharmas figured out how to make it work with compliant propellants, they of course patented the new concoction.
Posted by: concerned_citizen | Jan 13, 2017 4:18:10 PM