Panel: “Biosimilars” can lower medication costs, but Americans need to know more

December 2, 2022

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Voices for Affordable Health conducted a quick survey of our consumer members. We asked: Has your doctor mentioned biosimilars to you?

More than 9 out of 10 said they had not heard of this option.

Our results track with a recent webinar hosted by the Regence Health Policy Center and featuring a panel of experts. The session, titled “Improving Drug Affordability: The Promise of Biosimilars,” focused on what changes need to occur to make lower-cost “biosimilar” drugs more available and more acceptable to American consumers.

According to the American Cancer Society, a “biosimilar” drug is “a medicine that is very close in structure and function to a biologic medicine.”

What is a “biologic” drug? That is a medicine made in a living system, think bacteria, human and animal cells or even yeast. Biologics are used to help boost a body’s immune system as well as recognize and kill cancer cells more effectively. Biologics can also help the body make more blood cells to replace those lost during cancer treatments.

A biosimilar drug has a similar structure but is not the same as a brand-name biologic. That said, a biosimilar medication can’t be approved and/or prescribed unless it behaves in exactly the same way as a biologic.

On average, reports that biosimilar drugs are 30% less expensive than biologic drugs. The cost-savings are generated, in part, by more market competition and a shorter manufacturing and approval process. It’s important to note, however, that the biosimilar drug still must be found to be safe and effective before it can be approved.

During the webinar, Leah Purvis, Director of Health Care Costs and Access at the AARP Health Policy Institute observed that a lot of people don’t know about biosimilar alternatives.

“Patient awareness, consumer awareness is remarkably low,” she said. “We definitely need competition,” she added, “because people are facing some really high costs.”

David Robertson, Vice President of Clinical Pharmacy at Regence health plans, said the situation surrounding biosimilar drugs today is much like it was back in the 1980s when lower-cost generic drugs became more widely available but people – and their physicians – were wary.

“There’s a lot of stigma out there and concerns,” Robertson said.

However, Cate Lockhart, a pharmacist and Director of the Biologics and Biosimilars Collective Intelligence Consortium, said people should know that biosimilar drugs must pass FDA scrutiny to assure that there’s “no meaningful difference” when it comes to potency and safety.

What do you think? Have you tried a biosimilar medication? Would you? Share your thoughts (and selfie!)  with Voices for Affordable Health.