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A popular asthma inhaler is leaving pharmacy shelves. Here's what you need to know

Doctors and medical societies are suggesting patients who rely on Flovent take action now to ensure they can get the medication in 2024.
Mariia Siurtukova
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Doctors and medical societies are suggesting patients who rely on Flovent take action now to ensure they can get the medication in 2024.

Some asthma patients may start out the new year scrambling for their go-to inhaler – at least that's the concern as Flovent, a popular drug, leaves store shelves starting in January.

Earlier this year, drugmaker GSK announced it's discontinuing Flovent in 2024. There is a generic version to take its place, but some doctors worry patients could be left in the lurch as they sort out how to get the new medication covered by insurance.

Here's what to know:

What is this drug?

Flovent is a common asthma inhaler that's been around since the 1990s.

It contains a corticosteroid that prevents asthma attacks by reducing inflammation in the airway. Patients use the inhaler twice a day.

"Over ten people die a day from asthma," says Kenny Mendez,the president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, "So it's really important to have your asthma well-controlled."

Why is it being discontinued?

GSK says it's discontinuing Flovent because it's making a generic version instead.

"These authorized generics will provide patients in the US with potentially lower cost alternatives of these medically important products," a GSK spokesperson wrote in a statement to NPR.

"We recognize that patients have a number of options in the therapeutic area and therefore remain committed to ensuring the affordability of our medicines."

This generic does have a lower cash price than the original Flovent, according toGoodRx, which helps people find discounts on pharmaceuticals.

But whether this is actually going to lower the cost for patients at the pharmacy counter is more complicated.

GSK's generic Flovent isn't a typical generic made by an outside company to compete against the original product and ultimately lower prices. Instead, it's an "authorized generic," meaning it's made by the same company. In other words, GSK is still calling all the shots on its pricing.

A company spokesperson did not respond to NPR's question about why no true generics exist, despite the fact that once drugs have been on the market a number of years – as Flovent has – patents are gone, allowing other companies to also make the medication.

"In general, people think generics should be cheaper," Mendez says. "That's kind of the common knowledge, but it really depends on... your insurance plan and what's covered and what's not."

So here's the issue with Flovent: In some cases, doctors are saying that some insurers are not covering the new authorized generic, or, even if they are, patients could end up paying more than they were for the brand version at the pharmacy counter.

As a result, some patients will need to switch to different asthma drugs or get new prescriptions for the authorized generic, and that's just more hoops to jump through that could disrupt care.

But is the authorized generic really the same product?

Yes, it's the same medication and same device. It's also made by the same company.

The main difference is that it has a clean slate in terms of price hikes.

GoodRx provided NPR with some cash price data to offer a better look: A Flovent inhaler product was around $230 a decade ago. Now, it's around $340, which amounts to nearly a 50% price increase.

It's possible the drug company would have faced new penalties aimed at curbing excessive price hikes.

Meanwhile, the authorized generic version has only been around a year, and it costs around $310, according to GoodRx.

So by only offering this new generic, GSK can still sell the drug but without a history of price hikes, and without the risk of price hike penalties.

What can patients do to make sure they still get their medication?

Doctors and medical societies are suggesting patients take action now – before you face any disruptions in care.

Fill your prescription for Flovent while you still can, and start talking to your doctor and insurance company about options.

There are other asthma drugs, if that seems like the best choice for you. Every patient and every health plan is different.

You may need to get the ball rolling with your insurance on prior authorization, which can be time consuming. So it's best not to wait.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.