A. That is a question many people have been asking since Claritin (loratadine) was approved to be sold over-the-counter. The answer is complicated and it really depends on how you pay for your prescriptions now.
To begin to understand the answer to this question, it is helpful to understand why Claritin is now available without a prescription.
A few years ago, Wellpoint Health Networks petitioned the FDA to switch Claritin and other allergy medicines (like Allergra and Zyrtec) to OTC status. What was their motivation? Well, insurance companies spend a lot of money paying for allergy medications for people who have prescription benefits, where they just pay a copay to get a medicine that has been prescribed to them. If allergy medicines were available over-the-counter, the insurance companies would save a lot of money since they wouldn't have to pay for these prescriptions. Schering-Plough, the company that makes Claritin, opposed the OTC switch of Claritin at that time. For them, they likely figured they might lose money if Claritin was over-the-counter and doctors didn't prescribe it anymore.
However , last year, Schering-Plough changed their mind and got the FDA to change Claritin to over-the-counter status. Why? Most likely because the patent for Claritin expired (December 2002) and generic versions would soon be available. These generic versions would likely be less expensive than brand name Claritin and provide a lot of competition for Schering.
It was also likely that the makers of these generic versions would push to get Claritin changed to an OTC medicine. So, by getting their own version of Claritin available without a prescription now, they would hopefully get a jump on their competition
Also, Schering-Plough had introduced Clarinex, a newer version of Claritin. By moving Claritin to OTC status, there may be less confusing among doctors prescribing Clarinex.
Neither the drug companies or insurance companies likely had the best interests of people with allergies in mind (unless they are also shareholders of these companies) when they pursued the switch to over-the-counter Claritin.
Some allergy suffers will benefit though. Most allergy medications are fairly expensive, and if you didn't have any health insurance or prescription benefits, you might pay $60-80 for a month's supply of Claritin. Plus you would have to pay for a doctor's office visit to get your initial prescription. With OTC Claritin, you could just go to the pharmacy and pay about $30 for a month's supply of regular Claritin. Other versions, will be more expensive, for example $39 for a month's supply of Claritin Reditabs or Claritin D.
Other allergy suffers will also suffer as they are faced with higher costs. Many people with prescription benefits only pay about $10-20 for their prescriptions, as their insurance company pays for the rest. Now, instead of a copay, they will have to pay full price.
The people who will lose out the most are those with a low copay. For example, many people on Medicaid only pay $1-$5 for a prescription. Now they will have to pay a lot more, as they pay full price for OTC Claritin.
So if the cost of a month's supply of OTC Claritin is more than your current copay for prescription Claritin, then treating your allergies will cost you more each month. Prices will likely come down though once generic versions of OTC Claritin, like Alavert, become available early next year.
Those people on other forms of allergy medicines, like Allergra and Zyrtec, will also likely not benefit from Claritin being over-the-counter. Insurance companies will likely raise their copays or refuse to pay for these allergy medicines, as they try to push patients to take OTC allergy medications. And Claritin users who ask their doctor's to switch them to another antihistamine so that their insurance will continue to pay for the prescription might not save money either, as the copay for these medicines go up.
The other big question is will patients know when to take OTC Claritin without first consulting a doctor. For people with year round allergies and true seasonal allergies, the answer will likely be yes. However, it can often be difficult to know when someone has true allergies. A runny nose can also be caused by other things, including the common cold. Instead of reaching for a cold medicine in the pharmacy, many people may now buy Claritin instead. And if they have a cold, they will be wasting their money. To prevent this, even though you can buy Claritin without a prescription, you should first consult with your doctor, especially if you haven't been diagnosed with allergies before.