February 22, 2006

Healthcare spending for cholesterol-lowering drugs skyrocketed between 1996 and 2003, according to the HHS's Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

In recently issued findings, the AHRQ reported a 350 percent jump in spending to treat hyperlipidemia, a category of lipid disorders that includes high blood cholesterol, during that seven-year period. Hyperlipidemia is a metabolic condition that can contribute to more serious conditions, such as cardiovascular disease.

Private insurers, the government's Medicare and Medicaid programs, and patients are underwriting the costs of this trend, according to the AHRQ. Those costs are associated primarily with visits to doctors' offices and outpatient clinics, along with prescribed medications, the agency said.

In 2003, the AHRQ noted, the two top-selling drugs in the U.S. were the cholesterol treatments Lipitor (Atorvastatin) and Zocor (Simvastatin), which together totaled 13.3 billion in expenditures.

The effect on American healthcare consumers is staggering, according to the AHRQ, which based its findings on data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS). The survey is considered unique among government surveys because of its detailed data and "its ability to link data on health services spending and health insurance to demographic, employment, economic, health status, and other characteristics of individuals and families," the agency said.

MEPS results show that the number of households affected by the costs of treating high cholesterol ballooned from 7.3 million in 1996 to 21.6 million in 2003, an increase of nearly 300 percent.

Ninety percent of expenditures to treat hyperlipidemia in 2003 were focused on statins (MG-CoA reductase inhibitors), a class of drugs that lower cholesterol in patients at risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the MEPS.

The effect of this trend on Medicare costs is significant, with a 250-percent increase in the proportion of Medicare recipients who use a least one statin over a one-year period, said the AHRQ.