Tag Archives: Scott Martin

EpiPen and the Prescription Crisis

The American prescription crisis is no longer coming. It’s here. And we need to focus on how to address it.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August, for each person in the U.S., $858 is spent annually on prescription drugs, compared with an average of $400 per person across 19 other industrialized nations. Prescription medications now compose an estimated 17% of overall healthcare expenses.

How did we get here and who is to blame: the manufacturer of the drugs or the American drug distribution channel? Both parties are pointing their fingers at one another, with the flames being fanned by the media and government. Who should the consumer believe?

Unless you are living in a cave, you have heard or read about the EpiPen pricing scandal. The manufacturers’ CEO, Heather Bresch, claims that more than half of the new $608 list price is absorbed by the distribution channel. She says the huge price increases are not her company’s fault and attempts to justify the increased price. Is she right, or is she trying to pin the blame elsewhere for her pricing decisions?

See also: EpiPen Pricing: It’s the System, Stupid  

Drug manufacturers, in general, complain that their net incomes continue to remain flat or even decline. They show their financials as evidence and complain about the ratio of the list price of their drugs vs. the realized price, a figure known as “gross-to-net.” When rebates paid by the manufacturer outpace the price increases by the same manufacturer, it is easy to understand why the figure remains flat or even declines.

The pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) serves as the largest component of the manufacturers’ distribution channel, charging a margin/fee as well as collecting a rebate for their services. Somehow, they have redefined the laws of nature by figuring out how to consistently convince their clients that they are saving money, while showing Wall Street steady revenue growth.

The crisis is here, and as an employer you should be up at night wondering how this crisis of prescription costs affects you. The numbers don’t add up, and you are paying for the deficit.

What Should Prescriptions Cost?

In the prescription benefit world, there seems to be surprise that Anthem filed an unprecedented lawsuit against Express Scripts, stating that Anthem has been overcharged by more than $3 billion annually over the existing 10-year contract term.

The eye-popping damages claim was certain to garner headlines as was the fact that, after months of discussions, a major health insurance company followed through on its threat of legal action against a major pharmacy benefits manager (PBM). What people should really be talking about, however, are these two key questions:

1. How did Anthem, a sophisticated health insurance company, get into this situation with a PBM?

2. Is my employer, which is not a sophisticated health insurance company, in the same boat as Anthem?

Right now, everyone is starting to question what their prescriptions really cost.

It appears Anthem may be in a position to argue over a number of issues, including ill-defined contract terms (such as “competitive benchmark pricing”) that its legal team apparently agreed to when it executed its PBM contract. One phrase within the 100-plus page contract the two companies intended to govern their 10-year agreement could potentially become center stage in this lawsuit. Anthem’s CEO has repeatedly used the word “overcharged,” which is a relatively vague term that would need to be more clearly defined and argued should this case ever go to trial (which I don’t believe it will). Neither company wants to air the details more publicly than it already has. A more sensible path—to agree to disagree and craft a financial arrangement to resolve the issue—will most likely prevail.

Ironically, 2015-year end industry reporting shows that growth in drug spending is comparable to the other parts of the healthcare system. In fact, for many employers, increased prescription volume was a larger factor in cost escalation than actual drug price increases. This increased volume is a good sign, because increased pharmaceutical spending generally decreases overall medical spending. Employers that are willing to tightly manage their prescription drug program should be able to achieve spending increases of no more than 3.3% and as little as 0%.

However, without the implementation of a system to guarantee what you purchased and what you continue to pay, you will find yourself in Anthem’s boat — with even less leverage.

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The PBM vs. the Drug Manufacturer

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.

Make Your Prescription Benefit Manager Work for You

Does your Prescription Benefit Manager contract deliver the actual pricing printed on its pages?

Can you verify the actual pricing?

If you can’t accurately benchmark your pricing, how can you competitively analyze your program or implement any meaningful predictive strategies?

The majority of large employers today do not have the necessary tools at their disposal to decipher and use to their advantage the key relationship between the actual Prescription Benefit Manager (PBM) claims pricing received and the contract language that supports those claims.

It is all well and good to negotiate an average wholesale price (AWP) less 72% for a certain tier of drugs from your Prescription Benefit Manager, but how do you verify that is in fact what you are getting? Your contract may back up and document that discoun,t but does that mean you are receiving it? It is critical for the purchaser of prescription benefits to understand that what they believe they agreed to in contract negotiations and what appears to be supported by the Prescription Benefit Manager contract is not necessarily what they are receiving. In fact, discounts are often inflated making contracts look great on paper but not so good in reality.

The distractions of the Prescription Benefit Manager procurement process sidetrack most employers, which shifts their focus in the wrong direction giving way to perception and not reality. Terms like pass-through, transparency, rebates and average wholesale price, combined with the presentations of the competing Prescription Benefit Managers, leave most employers with more questions then when they began. Even Prescription Benefit Manager executives become confused when comparing their own proposal to that of a competitor.

Your primary concern should be to understand the discounts you are receiving or what you are actually paying. You must evaluate all Prescription Benefit Manager pricing with specific criteria that eliminates individual Prescription Benefit Manager discount methodology. This precise methodology language must be embedded into the contract so you are playing by your rules and not the rules of the Prescription Benefit Manager. Your discounts can then be validated to ensure that you are getting what you pay for.

With specific pricing criteria, you can take the mystery out of prescription pricing, and by understanding the true cost of your drugs, you are in a better position to evaluate ancillary programs that Prescription Benefit Managers may offer. In addition, it is just as important to audit and validate the pricing on an annual basis to police the pricing accuracy.

All Prescription Benefit Managers have their own approach to managing costs — some are better than others and may or may not be in your best interest. When you are spending millions of dollars a year on prescription drugs, you have to take a sound business approach and protect yourself through your Prescription Benefit Manager contract. Only when you really understand the costs of your drugs and true discounts you receive can you begin to evaluate the overall value that a Prescription Benefit Manager can bring to you.