In today’s American healthcare system, employers can’t order Lipitor directly from Pfizer fortheir employees. Instead, employers and employees are forced to buy drugs through a middleman, the pharmacy benefits manager (PBM).
Fingers have long been pointed in both directions to blame the other for the high cost of prescription drugs. The PBMs blame the drug manufacturers, and the drug manufacturers blame the PBMs, not unlike two children arguing on the playground.
Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest drug manufacturers, recently claimed that the average price increase on Humalog, its injectable insulin used to treat diabetes, has only been a modest 1% to 2% annually over the last five years. Tim Walbert, the CEO of small drug manufacturer Horizon Pharmaceuticals, said in a recent interview, that he expects the company’s actual price increases to be 4% or less over the next year.
PBMs, on the other hand, portray the drug manufacturers as greedy price gougers that fail to keep prescriptions costs under control. Anthem, one of the nation’s largest health insurers, works hard to convince its employer clients to leverage the buying process by joining Anthem’s negotiated PBM program with Express Scripts Inc. (ESI) instead of negotiating a direct deal with a PBM. This month, however, Anthem came out swinging, accusing its partner ESI of more than $3 billion in overcharges – all of which were passed along and paid by clients.
Who should the employers believe is at fault? Employers are aware of their prescription benefit bills. They clearly see that costs are escalating at an unprecedented rate. What can they do about the problem? How can they succeed if a buyer as large as Anthem failed for its thousands of employer clients?
Today’s healthcare market only permits employers to buy the employee drugs from two different platforms. They can choose to buy through a PBM partnership (Anthem partnered with ESI) or a large benefits broker’s partnership with a PBM. Secondly, they can choose to work with a consultant for high-level advice and contract directly with a PBM.
Regardless, the employer always gambles that it knows more about the PBM’s 120-page contract, pricing calculations and methodology than Anthem apparently did. It is a monumental sign of the times that Anthem publicly blamed ESI for its failure to contract effectively with the company, leading to overcharges for its clients.
Our healthcare system today is broken by design – not necessity – and virtually everyone in the chain lacks the incentive to fix it. In fact, people are financially motivated to maintain the status quo. Until drugs can be purchased directly from the manufacturers for a direct discounted price, employers are trapped in our national prescription benefit system.