Soaking the Sick to Make the Rich Even Richer

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Congressional Democrats have quickly lined up to oppose the Trump Administration’s proposal to eliminate regulations that make it illegal for drug companies to reduce – or eliminate – what Medicare consumers pay for prescriptions under the Part D program.

Instead, they are pushing plans to give health insurers and the pharmacy benefit management (PBM) companies they run and own even more control over what medicine consumers can choose and how much they cost.  In doing so, Democrats are backing a government-sanctioned drug pricing cartel that extorts nearly a quarter of trillion dollars a year from prescription drug rebates, discounts, and patients (in the form of out-of-pocket costs), and shares a pittance with the patients who need medicines the most. Eighty percent of drug benefits are managed by the 3 largest PBMs, which in turn are owned by or in part by the 3 largest insurance companies.

Current Medicare regulations makes it illegal for any firm other than PBMs to handle drug prices and distribution.  Specifically, PBMs are given free rein to determine what medicines patients can and can’t use.  This power allows them to reduce the list price of drugs by obtaining rebates in exchange for encouraging the use of some treatments while discouraging the use of other medicines.  PBMs either require patients to try drugs that generate the most rebates first or force people to pay part or all of the list price of medicines that don’t generate much money. 

As a result, of $140 billion Medicare Part D spent on medicines, $64 billion was pocketed by PBMs and health plans.  And of the $460 billion all Americans spent on drugs in 2018 nearly $166 billion went to discounts and rebates.

Parroting the PBM/insurer talking points, Nancy Pelosi’s health policy advisor, Wendell Primus, said prices – not rebates – are the cause of high drug costs, and savings from rebates negotiated by pharmacy benefit managers go toward reducing insurance premiums.

In fact, PBMs keep Part D premiums artificially low by collecting rebates and other fees at the retail counter. Because Medicare starts paying for 80 percent of drug costs after seniors shell out over $4500 at the pharmacy, plumping up the retail price with rebates means PBMs and insurers reduce premiums by shifting more cost to the government and ultimately by forcing seniors to pay more for medicines.

Moreover, PBMs are using rebates extracted from the medicines the most seriously ill patient uses to subsidize the drug spending and premiums of everyone else. People with cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s, autoimmune diseases are only 2 percent of the population. But in 2017 the drugs they use generated $53 billion, or 32 percent of all rebates and discounts.

These rebates could be used to reduce out-of-pocket costs of even the most expensive drugs to 50 dollars or less.  Instead PBMs and plans actually make seniors pay a large percentage of the retail cost of the rebated drugs  In fact, as rebates have increased, plans have made more consumers of these so-called specialty drugs to pay up to 50 percent of the retail price of medicines instead of a small copay.  Nearly 25 percent of all consumers now pay full price for drugs. As an IQVIA report found: “people who use specialty medicines are 10 times more likely to pay full price for the most expensive medicine. On average, they are 10 times more likely to pay over $2500.”

In 2017, 2 percent of the most vulnerable consumers paid PBMs and health plans $16 billion in out-of-pocket costs.  Soaking the sick to make the rich even richer.  The quickest way to cut the cost of medicines to what they are in Europe is to eliminate the PBM protection racket and give drug companies the freedom to dramatically reduce the out-of-pocket cost for the most expensive medicines.  To be sure, a growing number of drug firms and insurers are working together to eliminate out-of-pocket costs as part of programs to improve health by reducing barriers to access.  Indeed, because PhRMA and BIO have stated that consumers should pay less, the Trump proposal is truly a ‘put up or shut up’ moment for the industry.

Under the current rules, it doesn’t pay for PBMs and insurers to choose a drug with lower out-of-pocket costs, and drug companies have no incentive to tie out-of-pocket costs to better care.  Under current rules, patients are unable to afford the medicines that keep them alive. The Trump proposal would change all that.  It’s up to Democrats to explain why, instead of cutting drug costs dramatically and directly, they want to line the pockets of big corporations with money from the sickest patients.

Robert Goldberg is vice president at the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest

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