ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Ivermectin continues to be a lightning rod topic during the coronavirus pandemic. Although many people are using the medication as a COVID-19 treatment option, there’s very little evidence that the drug actually fights the virus. Despite all this, a new study reveals health insurers are still paying for patients wanting the controversial drug.
Typically, ivermectin is a prescription medication for treating parasitic infections and is also a common horse dewormer. Although previous studies have found enough evidence to claim that ivermectin “can end this pandemic,” the overall amount of clinical proof is still lacking.
Still, many patients are choosing to buy the drug, and some are even using it as an alternative to vaccination — including NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers. While health care providers often require scientific proof that certain medications are effective against the illness doctors are prescribing it for, the new report finds that hasn’t been the case with ivermectin and COVID-19.
In fact, researchers from the University of Michigan say insurers are paying down 61 to 74 percent of the cost for ivermectin prescriptions. That’s about $36 to $39 per prescription.
“Insurers usually don’t cover ineffective treatments, or at least make patients pay for most of the cost,” says study leader Kao-Ping Chua, M.D., Ph.D., in a university release. “Our study suggests that they are treating ivermectin prescriptions for COVID-19 differently. In doing so, they are reducing barriers to an ineffective drug that some are using as a substitute for COVID-19 vaccination or evidence-based treatments.”
Should the government make it harder to buy ivermectin?
The team, including researchers from Boston University, looked at private insurance and Medicare Advantage claims between December 2020 and March 2021. That review found 5,600 prescriptions for ivermectin pills that weren’t for a parasitic infection — with the main reason being exposure to COVID-19.
The average cost for an ivermectin prescription is $58 for a private plan, but insurance paid 61 percent. For Medicare Advantage customers, a prescription costs $52 but insurance paid up to 74 percent of this amount — nearly $40. The patients getting these prescriptions are responsible for paying the rest of the bill.
According to the team’s calculations, 84,400 of the 88,000 ivermectin prescriptions filled during the week of Aug. 13, 2021 were for COVID-19. Study authors estimate that health care plans paid $2.4 million for prescriptions during this week alone. Over the course of a full year, that would work out to about $130 million.
Unless scientists find more evidence that ivermectin is an effective treatment for coronavirus infections, study authors argue that health care providers should require doctors to fill out a prior authorization form before prescribing the drug.
“To be clear, clinicians may still prescribe ivermectin for COVID-19 and patients can choose to pay for these prescriptions themselves. Our point is simply that insurers shouldn’t cover these prescriptions unless ivermectin proves to be an effective COVID-19 treatment,” Dr. Chua concludes.
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization both discourage the use of ivermectin pills for treating COVID-19, except in clinical studies.
The study is published in the journal JAMA.