Radar on Drug Benefits

Express Scripts Reports Record Low Drug Trend Across Commercial Plans in 2018

February 18, 2019

For its first annual drug trend report as a part of Cigna Corp., Express Scripts Holding Co. said it had achieved a record low drug trend of 0.4% across its clients’ employer-sponsored commercial plans in 2018. Overall, the PBM reported savings of $45 billion for its clients last year.

The PBM cited “an unprecedented 0.3% decline” in per-beneficiary drug spending across Medicare plans. Overall, there was a 1.4% decrease in unit cost trend, which allowed clients to absorb a 1.1% increase in utilization, the PBM said. Oncology replaced diabetes as Medicare’s top therapy class by per member per year spend.

By Judy Packer-Tursman

For its first annual drug trend report as a part of Cigna Corp., Express Scripts Holding Co. said it had achieved a record low drug trend of 0.4% across its clients’ employer-sponsored commercial plans in 2018. Overall, the PBM reported savings of $45 billion for its clients last year.

The PBM cited “an unprecedented 0.3% decline” in per-beneficiary drug spending across Medicare plans. Overall, there was a 1.4% decrease in unit cost trend, which allowed clients to absorb a 1.1% increase in utilization, the PBM said. Oncology replaced diabetes as Medicare’s top therapy class by per member per year spend.

Express Scripts also reported falling unit drug costs for employer, Medicare and Affordable Care Act exchange plans. On the specialty side, the PBM said that although list prices for brand-name specialty drugs rose by 7.1% in 2018, specialty drug costs increased by a lower 2.1% for its employer-sponsored plans, 2.4% for its Medicare plans and 2% for its exchange plans.

“ESI’s report reflects a broader pattern that we are tracking industry-wide as it relates to drug trend,” says Josh Golden at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.’s Solid Benefit Guidance.

“On the non-specialty side, the absence of any significant new blockbuster brands and the continued deflation of generics has offered plans some much-needed cost relief. These trends have helped offset the mounting cost and utilization increases that we are seeing for specialty products,” Golden says. “As a result of these opposing forces, trend is hovering in the low single digits. This is welcome news for plan sponsors.”

California Makes Waves With Pharma Benefits, Purchasing Plan

January 28, 2019

Under the direction of its new governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, California is planning to take control of the pharmacy benefit for all of the state’s Medi-Cal beneficiaries — the vast majority of which currently have that part of their care administered by private insurers and their PBMs. What’s more, the order directs state agencies to create bulk-purchasing arrangements for high-priority drugs and establish a framework for letting private businesses and insurers join the state’s buying pool.

The idea of the state’s Medicaid program shifting to an entirely fee-for-service drug benefits system is already sparking worries about what it will do to PBMs’ bottom lines.

By Leslie Small

Under the direction of its new governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, California is planning to take control of the pharmacy benefit for all of the state’s Medi-Cal beneficiaries — the vast majority of which currently have that part of their care administered by private insurers and their PBMs. What’s more, the order directs state agencies to create bulk-purchasing arrangements for high-priority drugs and establish a framework for letting private businesses and insurers join the state’s buying pool.

The idea of the state’s Medicaid program shifting to an entirely fee-for-service drug benefits system is already sparking worries about what it will do to PBMs’ bottom lines.

“We suspect that the fee-for-service aspect [of the executive order] may have an adverse impact on PBMs and potentially MCOs that provide managed Medicaid services in the state,” RBC Capital Markets, LLC analyst George Hill wrote in a research note. Currently, California’s Medicaid managed care organizations contract with 10 different PBMs to administer the pharmacy benefit for 10.64 million managed Medicaid lives — which comprise nearly 90% of the state’s total Medicaid lives.

In addition, one concern for managed care plans is the fact that carving out benefits makes it more difficult to coordinate care, according to L.A. Care CEO John Baackes.

“I think one of the advantages of a managed Medi-Cal plan like ours is that for people who are in very difficult circumstances health-wise, we do provide an element of care management that’s important,” he says. “And if there’s an element of the benefit that we don’t control, then it’s awkward.”

Regarding the the concept of California starting a bulk-pharmaceutical buying program, Andrey Ostrovsky, M.D., former chief medical officer at CMS’s Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services and current CMO at Solera Health, says it could indeed help drive down prices, since the PBMs that currently serve the state operate independently.

But other experts aren’t so sure.

“If you’re negotiating directly with the manufacturers on drug prices, how’s the delivery system of that going to work, and how are the pharmacies, at the local level, going to be able to maintain a profit and not lose money?” asks Brian Anderson, a principal with Milliman, Inc. Just because a state can negotiate a large rebate from drug manufacturers doesn’t necessarily mean it’s negotiating a lower drug price, he adds.

Drug-Pricing Transparency, Vertical PBM Deals Are Top of Mind for Employers in 2019

January 16, 2019

As they look to win over employer clients this year, PBMs should be prepared to face stiff competition and embrace emerging trends such as value-based formularies and rebate-free models, benefits consultants tell AIS Health.

“I’ve heard more interest about RFPs and going out, looking for or market-checking vendors than I have in a while — particularly on the PBM side,” says Suzanne Taranto, a principal and consulting actuary for Milliman, Inc.

Companies are also considering how the vertical integration in the PBM space is “reshaping the landscape,” says Renya Spak, who leads Mercer’s Center for Health Innovation.

By Leslie Small

As they look to win over employer clients this year, PBMs should be prepared to face stiff competition and embrace emerging trends such as value-based formularies and rebate-free models, benefits consultants tell AIS Health.

“I’ve heard more interest about RFPs and going out, looking for or market-checking vendors than I have in a while — particularly on the PBM side,” says Suzanne Taranto, a principal and consulting actuary for Milliman, Inc.

Companies are also considering how the vertical integration in the PBM space is “reshaping the landscape,” says Renya Spak, who leads Mercer’s Center for Health Innovation.

“The main players in the pharmacy and medical space are all going to start operating a little bit differently,” Spak says. “We thought we knew how they operated and their business model, but now that they’re vertically integrated, I think we need to apply a whole new lens to understanding how they will operate and what will drive their business forward in the future.”

That said, many of the same themes that employers are focused on will apply, including greater transparency around drug pricing and rebates, and even rebate-free models, she says. Presumably in response to that demand, CVS in early December unveiled a Guaranteed Net Cost PBM model, under which it will pass 100% of rebates to plan sponsors.

Along similar lines, Spak says she’s seeing renewed interest in formularies that are based on the value that certain drugs deliver versus how rebates flow.

Another trend that Taranto is seeing involves “more care management programs, more interest in the specialty space and looking at alternative ways to procure those drugs,” she says.

Specialty drug spending is always a high-attention area, Taranto explains, but now there more tools and different options available — not only from the “usual suspects,” PBMs — but also from other vendors that are offering to help manage these pricey medications.

For employers that are large enough, that may mean they consider a different contract, she says. But “if you’re smaller, you may be looking at a number of specialty pharmacy providers outside of the standard PBM, on a carve-out basis, who promise better pricing, better deals.”

Don’t Expect Major Action on Drug Prices in 2019, Experts Say

January 14, 2019

As 2019 gets under way, public outrage over high prescription drug prices does not appear to have abated, especially in light of recent news reports indicating manufacturers are raising prices on hundreds of drugs this month, AIS Health reported.

Yet there are plenty of reasons why this concern over drug prices might not result in any significant legislative or regulatory action, experts tell AIS Health. And whatever does occur might benefit health plans and PBMs more than challenge them.

By Leslie Small

As 2019 gets under way, public outrage over high prescription drug prices does not appear to have abated, especially in light of recent news reports indicating manufacturers are raising prices on hundreds of drugs this month.

Yet there are plenty of reasons why this concern over drug prices might not result in any significant legislative or regulatory action, experts tell AIS Health. And whatever does occur might benefit health plans and PBMs more than challenge them.

Walid Gellad at the University of Pittsburgh says there’s sure to be a lot of drug-pricing bills proposed — and even passed — by the House, but it’s not certain that any will become law. He says that’s because many Senate Republicans aren’t likely to be very interested in passing legislation that harms the pharmaceutical industry. “The real uncertainty is whether the president would get behind one of those bills, and if so, that could change things,” Gellad says.

One hot topic on Democrats’ legislative agenda will be allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers. While the idea of broad-based Medicare price negotiation probably has little chance of passing, “there could be a tie-in between negotiation and external reference prices for Part D,” says Gerard Anderson, professor at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In fact, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other left-leaning lawmakers introduced a trio of drug-pricing bills on Jan. 10, one of which would direct HHS to negotiate lower prices for Part D drugs, and another that would peg the price of prescription drugs in the U.S. to the median price in five major countries.

Overall, Anderson says he expects most potential actions to lower drug prices will benefit the managed care sector, as the result could be lower costs for such companies.

On the regulatory front, Gellad says he expects “small changes here and there…[but] nothing that’s going to radically change prices now or over the next two years — or until the next election.” However, “the big one for me is whether there will be big action around rebates,” he adds.

If the prescription drug rebate structure changes fundamentally, “it’s going to create a challenge for PBMs and their underwriting strategies, because they have been driven by rebates over the last couple years,” says Brian Anderson, a principal with Milliman, Inc.

PBMs May Be Able to Handle Pressure From State Medicaid Programs

January 7, 2019

As states take a hard look at how they can reduce prescription drug spending in their Medicaid programs, they’ve put an already heavily scrutinized type of organization in their crosshairs: PBMs.

Ohio, for example, is forcing PBMs to abandon their current “spread pricing” models — in which PBMs pocket the difference between the amount they reimburse a pharmacy for a drug and the (usually higher) amount they charge a plan sponsor. Instead, they’ll move to a “pass-through” model, where PBMs will be paid an administrative fee by the Medicaid program and have to pay pharmacists the same amount that they bill the state for drugs, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

By Leslie Small

As states take a hard look at how they can reduce prescription drug spending in their Medicaid programs, they’ve put an already heavily scrutinized type of organization in their crosshairs: PBMs.

Ohio, for example, is forcing PBMs to abandon their current “spread pricing” models — in which PBMs pocket the difference between the amount they reimburse a pharmacy for a drug and the (usually higher) amount they charge a plan sponsor. Instead, they’ll move to a “pass-through” model, where PBMs will be paid an administrative fee by the Medicaid program and have to pay pharmacists the same amount that they bill the state for drugs, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

Most recently, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale (D) released a report that advocates for legislation that would trade a spread-pricing model for a flat-fee model and allow the state’s Medicaid program to directly manage its prescription drug benefits instead of contracting with managed care organizations.

It might seem as though PBMs are facing a considerable threat from these moves, but industry experts say they are likely to be able to adjust to states’ changing preferences.

“I’d say that the PBMs’ business model could definitely change if more payers move toward this pass-through pricing model, but it doesn’t necessarily eliminate their role entirely,” says Tiernan Meyer, a director at Avalere Health. States can often be strapped for resources, and having a contractor administer pharmacy benefits instead of using their own resources to do so, “can be useful,” she adds.

What’s more, “the PBMs are very much used to this from other contracts that they hold, and they can certainly make money in a transparent environment,” says Robert Ferraro, R.Ph., a principal at the consulting firm Buck’s national pharmacy practice. “I think they would prefer a traditional model where their revenue wasn’t so easily identified by all their customers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t earn a very good living in a transparent or pass-through model.”

A more transparent approach to PBM contracting also helps smaller PBMs compete with the likes of UnitedHealth Group’s OptumRx, CVS Health Corp. and Cigna Corp.-owned Express Scripts Holding Co., because it simplifies the procurement process to an examination of administrative fees, he says.