Trump Administration Decides Not to End PBM Rebates

The Trump administration has decided not to pursue a policy that would have put an end to rebates paid to pharmacy benefit managers, which could put the focus again on how drug companies set their prices.

The proposal would have barred drug companies from paying rebates to PBMs that participate in Medicare and other government programs. According to the administration, the proposed rules were shelved because Congress had taken up the issue to control drug costs.

The spotlight has been harsh on some of the country’s largest PBMs, which have been accused of pocketing a substantial portion of the rebates for themselves while passing on only a sliver of the rebates to the insurance companies that hire them and the health plan enrollees that pay out of pocket for the drugs.

Rebates had become a popular target of criticism in Washington after drug companies lobbied aggressively to cast them as the reason for high prices. PBMs negotiate drug discounts in the form of rebates, often keeping some of that money for themselves.

However, many pundits say that the rebate system put in place by large, national PBMs incentivizes drug companies to keep list prices high, which in turn defeats the purpose of the PBMs – that is, to reduce the out-of-pocket costs that health plan enrollees pay for their prescription drugs.

Like insurers and PBMs, some of which have sought to undermine the practice with accumulator adjustment programs, the Trump administration believes such coupons may be driving up health care spending by getting patients to opt for higher-priced name-brand drugs over generics.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services proposal unveiled in January would have essentially blocked drug manufacturer rebates from going to PBMs and health plans that serve Medicare and Medicaid patients, starting next year.

Now that the push to eliminate rebates has come to end, the focus looks like it’s shifting to how drug companies price their products. We will keep you posted if any legislation surfaces in this area.

Trump Administration Decides Not to End PBM Rebates

The Trump administration has decided not to pursue a policy that would have put an end to rebates paid to pharmacy benefit managers, which could put the focus again on how drug companies set their prices.

The proposal would have barred drug companies from paying rebates to PBMs that participate in Medicare and other government programs. According to the administration, the proposed rules were shelved because Congress had taken up the issue to control drug costs.

The spotlight has been harsh on some of the country’s largest PBMs, which have been accused of pocketing a substantial portion of the rebates for themselves while passing on only a sliver of the rebates to the insurance companies that hire them and the health plan enrollees that pay out of pocket for the drugs.

Rebates had become a popular target of criticism in Washington after drug companies lobbied aggressively to cast them as the reason for high prices. PBMs negotiate drug discounts in the form of rebates, often keeping some of that money for themselves.

However, many pundits say that the rebate system put in place by large, national PBMs incentivizes drug companies to keep list prices high, which in turn defeats the purpose of the PBMs – that is, to reduce the out-of-pocket costs that health plan enrollees pay for their prescription drugs.

Like insurers and PBMs, some of which have sought to undermine the practice with accumulator adjustment programs, the Trump administration believes such coupons may be driving up health care spending by getting patients to opt for higher-priced name-brand drugs over generics.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services proposal unveiled in January would have essentially blocked drug manufacturer rebates from going to PBMs and health plans that serve Medicare and Medicaid patients, starting next year.

Now that the push to eliminate rebates has come to end, the focus looks like it’s shifting to how drug companies price their products. We will keep you posted if any legislation surfaces in this area.

Ohio Auditor’s Report on PBMs Sparks Changes

An audit carried out for Ohio Medicaid found that large pharmacy benefit managers that contract with the state’s Medicaid program have been pocketing a larger and larger share of drug pricing.

In fact, PBMs charged Ohio Medicaid plans 31% more for generic prescriptions than the amount they paid pharmacists for the drugs, the audit found, shedding light on a practice that observers say is being mirrored throughout the country.

The auditor found that the two largest PBMs operating in the state billed Medicaid managed-care plans $223.7 million more for prescription drugs than they paid pharmacy providers in 2017.

The report comes as pressure grows on PBMs to be more transparent about their pricing and costs amid complaints by pharmacies that are barely breaking even or losing money due to the tough contracts they have to enter into with PBMs. Many critics say that PBMs are not passing on the savings to payers when they negotiate lower contracts with pharmacies.

“We know that Ohio is not alone,” Ernie Boy, executive director of the Ohio Pharmacy Association, said in a prepared statement. “Every state and every payer in the country is grappling with these overinflated costs.”

What’s going on

Medicaid doesn’t directly pay pharmacists. Ohio Medicaid pays five private insurance companies to manage Medicaid plans for the state. The insurance companies contract out pharmacy benefits to middlemen, which pay pharmacists to fill prescriptions.

Medicaid and most health plans contract with PBMs to essentially run the drug portion of the health insurance equation. They are supposed to negotiate volume discounts with drug-makers and rates with pharmacies to reduce the overall drug spend by the payers.

PBMs make a good deal of their money from a growing “spread” between what the PBM pays pharmacies and what it charges payers (in this case, the state Medicaid program). The PBM keeps the spread, but most PBMs are not transparent about how much the spread is, leaving both the pharmacies and the payers in the dark.

According to the report, the overall spread in 2017 in Ohio was $224.8 million – with an average spread of 8.9% per prescription. Generic drugs, which comprise 86% of Medicaid prescriptions in Ohio and for which pricing is most opaque, accounted for an overwhelming majority of the spread.

The report found that during the entire study period:

  • The average spread was $5.71 per prescription.
  • The average spread for brand-name prescriptions was $1.85.
  • The average spread for generic prescriptions was $6.14.
  • The average spread for specialty drugs was $33.49.

Generic drugs account for 86% of Medicaid prescription claims in Ohio.

The auditor stated in its report that PBMs’ administrative fees typically range from $0.95 to $1.90 per prescription.

“Although this figure may not include all of services performed by a (pharmacy benefit manager), it suggests Ohio’s current spread may be excessive and warrants the state taking further action to mitigate the impact on the Medicaid program,” the report stated.

As part of its findings, the auditor noted that pharmacies in Ohio have been shuttering at a brisk pace since Medicaid PBMs have been cutting how much they reimburse them for medications.

Between 2013 and 2017, some 371 pharmacies closed in Ohio, coinciding with significant reimbursement reductions in their PBM contracts. The majority of those closures have taken place since 2016.

As a result of the audit, Ohio’s Medicaid department directed its managed-care organizations to quit their contracts with PBMs, citing the opaque pricing practices.

The state’s five managed-care plans were required to enter into new contracts with companies that were able to manage pharmacy services using a more transparent pricing model by the start of 2019.

Pharmacy Benefit Managers: A Brake on Rising Prescription Costs or a Cause of Them?

In 2017, spending on prescription drugs grew 11%, faster than any other category of health care spending, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The report cited increased use of new medicines, price increases for existing ones, and more spending on generic drugs as the reasons for this growth. Increasingly, though, observers of the health care system point to one player – the pharmacy benefit manager.

PBMs are intermediaries, acting as go-betweens for insurance companies, self-insured employers, drug manufacturers and pharmacies. They can handle prescription claims administration for insurers and employers, facilitate mail-order drug delivery, market drugs to pharmacies, and manage formularies (lists of drugs for which health plans will reimburse patients.)

A PBM typically has contracts with both insurers and pharmacies. It charges health plans fees for administering their prescription drug claims, and also negotiates the amounts that plans pay for each of the drugs.

At the same time, it creates the formularies that spell out the prices pharmacies receive for each drug on the lists. Commonly, the price the plan pays for a drug is more than the pharmacy receives for it. The PBM collects the difference between the two prices.

It can do this because the health plan does not know what the PBM’s arrangement is with the pharmacy, and vice versa. Also, a health plan does not know the details of the PBM’s arrangements with its competitors.

A PBM could charge one plan $200 for a month’s supply of an antidepressant, charge another plan $190 for the same drug, and pay the pharmacy $160. None of the three parties knows what the other parties are paying or receiving.

In addition, drug manufacturers, who recognize the influence PBM’s have over the market, offer them rebates off the prices of their products.

Questionable transparency

In theory, the PBMs pass these rebates back to the health plans, who use them to moderate premium increases. However, because these arrangements are also confidential, the extent to which these savings are passed back to health plans is unknown. Many observers believe that PBMs are keeping all or most of the rebates.

To fund the rebates, drug manufacturers may increase their prices. The CEO of drug-maker Mylan testified before Congress in 2016 that more than half the $600 priceof an anti-allergy drug used in emergencies went to intermediaries.

The PBMs argue that they help hold down drug prices by promoting the use of generic drugs and by passing on the savings from rebates to health plans and consumers.

They reject the notion that they are somehow taking advantage of health plans and pharmacies, pointing out that they are “sophisticated buyers” of their services. They also argue that revealing the details of their contracts would harm their ability to compete and keep prices low.

Nevertheless, PBMs are now attracting scrutiny from Congress, health plans and employers. At least one major insurer has sued its PBM for allegedly failing to negotiate new pricing concessions in good faith.

In addition, businesses such as Amazon are considering getting into the PBM business. Walmart is already selling vials of insulin at relatively inexpensive prices.

PBMs earn billions of dollars in profits each year. With the increased attention those profits have brought, it is uncertain how long that will continue.