A Dose of Reality: PBM’s Job is Rarely To Save Costs

Article as seen in MyHealthGuide Source, written by Ron E. Peck, Esq., Sr. VP & General Counsel, The Phia Group, LLC, The Self-Insurer July 2016 – pages 10-15 Full Text

Utilization review. Precertification. Medical case management. It seems as if health plans have been, for lack of a better word, micromanaging how medical care is sought and obtained by plan participants, for decades upon decades. It makes sense. Whether I’m a fully insured carrier or a self-insured plan sponsor, I know that a complicated pregnancy, chronic illness, cancer diagnosis, or any other number of conditions will seriously hurt — if not sink — my plan.

As specialty drugs, implants and other devices usher in an age of skyrocketing costs, not enough attention is being paid to this area in dire need of improvement.

Drug costs already make up 25% of all healthcare expenses. Indeed, a recent study revealed that large employers spent — on average — almost a thousand dollars per covered life, on pharmacy costs in 2014.

  • Specialty and Compound drugs accounts for between 25% and 35% of total drug spending.
  • Further, the costs associated with specialty drugs is increasing at nearly double the 10% rate attributed to other drugs; meaning a 20% jump per year.
  • Even more startling, more than 50% of drugs in the later stages of FDA approval are specialty drugs.
  • Some existing medication have increased substantially, with some increases exceeding 47%.
  • All of this adds up to a total pharmacy spend projected to double by 2020.

The Role of the PBM

A report says that eighty percent (80%) of employers agree or somewhat agree that their Pharmacy Benefit Manager (PBM) is sufficiently managing drug costs. I’m sure — if asked about medical expenses in general — the same respondents would be full of complaints. Yet, when we focus on drug costs which — as described above — are one of the (if not the) fastest growing drivers of plan expense, 80%+ of plan sponsors are satisfied. Someone isn’t getting the memo!

  • PBMs are not necessarily the problem. The issue is that we — as an industry — don’t recognize their role, limits and mission. People assume PBMs exist to contain drug costs. This is simply not the case (with a few exceptions).

Plan sponsors contract with PBMs directly or through their third party claims administrator, to decide what drugs are covered, what the costs shall be and, as it relates to payment to pharmacies, the where, when and how much. Further, plans rely upon their PBM to set the participant cost-share and establish pharmacy networks. PBMs therefore serve many important roles; none of which are — first and foremost — dedicated to identifying cost containment opportunities.

  • Understanding the role of a traditional PBM, what they do to create revenue for themselves and recognizing the pros and cons of said arrangement, is the key to devising independent cost controls.

Some plan sponsors think that they simply pay the PBM for the cost of any drugs actually dispensed and usually an administrative fee for managing the prescription drug program. Little do they know, but many other costs — and conflicts — impact the bottom line when it comes to prescription drug purchasing and distribution, above and beyond the problem of rising drug costs.

The costs of the drugs purchased are exploding. Plans, however, are not only contending with the rising cost of the drugs themselves. They must also worry about lost refunds, PBMs pocketing spreads (the difference between what the plan pays and the pharmacy receives) and other revenue bolstering tactics, such as up-charging and therapeutic shifting. Continue reading