Spending on specialised drugs for rheumatoid arthritis triples in 5 years

The cost to the community of drugs that are considered first-line treatment for rheumatoid arthritis increased significantly between 2003 and 2007, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

An estimated 384,000 Australians had rheumatoid arthritis in 2004-05 and this number increased to 428,000 in 2007-08.

Two different types of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can be used to manage rheumatoid arthritis. These are referred to as conventional DMARDs and biologic DMARDs, or bDMARDs, which can minimise or prevent joint damage caused by rheumatoid arthritis. The increase in the supply of the latter contributed largely to the rising supply cost of DMARDs.

‘When initiated early, DMARDs have been shown to improve prognosis , reducing or preventing disability and improving quality of life,’ said report author Dr Tomoko Sugiura.

The report, The use of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs for the management of rheumatoid arthritis, shows that expenditure on these drugs tripled between 2003 and 2007, with bDMARDs, such as etanercept and adalimumab, accounting for over half the total cost despite their relatively smaller script volume.

‘More than 3.4 million DMARD prescriptions were dispensed between January 2003 and December 2007 of which around 132,000 were for bDMARDs, ’ Dr Sugiura said.

The report estimates that conventional DMARDs and bDMARDs supplied through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) cost $472 million over the five-year period, with the annual cost increasing three-fold from about $46 million to almost $134 million between 2003 and 2007.

‘During this 5-year period almost 84% of the costs of conventional DMARDs was paid for by the Australian Government under the PBS,’ Dr Sugiura said.

‘Since the introduction of bDMARDs in 2003, government subsidies for DMARDs have increased dramatically.’

Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis has changed considerably over the last two decades, particularly in light of findings that serious joint destruction takes place within the first year of disease onset.

The disease can start at a young age, with the highest incidence between the ages of 35 and 64 years, although it is more prevalent in older people. Patients in the 55 to 64 years age group were the largest group of people receiving DMARDs.

About two-thirds of people taking DMARDs and bDMARDs were women.

Canberra, 31 March 2011

Further information: Dr Tomoko Sugiura, AIHW, tel. (02) 6249 5146, mob. 0407 915 851

For media copies of the report: Publications Officer 02 6244 1032