The US Affordable Care Act (ACA) saved nearly 3.6 million people enrolled in the US Medicare programme some $2.1 billion on their prescription drugs last year, says the government.

Savings for Medicare enrolees (the over-65s and some disabled people) will increase over time, and reach an average of nearly $4,200 per person by 2021 because of the new law, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

"The ACA is already saving money for millions of Americans with Medicare. As we move forward, we will close the doughnut hole completely and save even more money for everyone with Medicare," said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The "doughnut hole" is the prescription drug coverage gap which occurs when spending for enrollees in the Medicare prescription drug plan (known as Part D) reaches an annual limit. Last year this was $2,840, after which the enrolee was required to pay their drug costs in full until they reached a figure of $4,550, after which the scheme stepped in again.

In 2011, the 3.6 million people who hit the doughnut hole saved an average of $604 each on the cost of their prescription drugs. Medicare provided a 7% discount on covered generic medications for people who reached the doughnut hole, and more than 2.8 million beneficiaries received $32.1 million in savings on generics in the year.

By 2020, the doughnut hole will be closed completely, and typical Medicare beneficiaries will save an average of nearly $4,200 from 2011 to 2021, while those with high prescription drug costs could save as much as $16,000, says the Department.

Meantime, a new report says that allowing people to purchase over-the-counter (OTC) medications provides the US healthcare system with $102 billion in profits a year, and that each dollar spent on OTCs savings $6-$7 for the health care system.

If OTCs were not available, 180 million people would seek treatment, increasing prescription drug costs by $25 billion, and an additional 56,000 medical practitioners would be needed to assist with the increase in visits to doctors' offices, says the study, produced by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), which represents makes of OTCs and dietary supplements.

The total value of OTCs is captured throughout the entire US healthcare system - $52.7 billion in value for employer-sponsored health plans, $27.5 billion for government programmes including Medicare and Medicaid, and $21.7 billion for self-insured and uninsured populations, the report adds.

The CHPA is calling for Congress to reverse a provision of the ACA which prohibits consumers from using flexible spending arrangements (FSAs) and other tax-preferred accounts to obtain a prescription for OTC drugs to be eligible for reimbursement.

The American Medical Association (AMA) is also calling for the provision to be reversed, noting that doing so "will reduce unnecessary office visits, which will save time for patients, physicians and the healthcare system."