Sara Pistilli, MJLST Staffer
On November 19, 2021, the House of Representatives voted to pass the “Build Back Better Act” which includes several provisions aimed at ever-rising healthcare prices. In trying to combat this concern, Congress included mandatory reporting provisions for pharmacy benefit managers (PBM) who bill Medicare and Medicaid insurance programs. PBMs will be required to provide reports every six months that include data on copays, dispensed drugs, rebates, and total out of pocket spending for patients. Speaker Nancy Pelosi states these provisions are aimed at “providing transparency regarding drug costs in private health plans” but is transparency helpful or even necessary when the effects PBMs have on healthcare costs are well known?
What is a PBM?
PBMs are third-party administrators that manage prescription drug benefits on behalf of both private and public healthcare payers. They have significant power to manipulate the healthcare market by acting as middlemen between payers (insurance companies), drug manufacturers, and dispensers (pharmacies). Originally, PBMs were meant to lower healthcare costs by streamlining transactions and attempting to create fair payment systems for dispensing pharmacies.Instead, PBMs have secretly contributed to increasing healthcare costs by inflating drug costs while concurrently decreasing pharmacy reimbursement rates leading to huge windfall profits for PBMs at the patients’ expense.
How do PBMs make millions in profits each year?
While some patients pay cash for medications, most are covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurers. PBMs are paid by these insurers to determine how much a healthcare plan pays for a medication and in turn, how much the pharmacy gets reimbursed for the dispensed medication. For example, Bob receives a new prescription from his doctor for drug A. The pharmacy buys a bottle of drug A for $7. When Bob comes to pick up his prescription for drug A, his health insurer’s PBM pays $8 to reimburse the pharmacy, allowing them to gain a profit of $1. Concurrently, the PBM bills the health insurer $18 for the price of drug A, allowing them to make $10 in profit on Bob’s prescription. This practice, called spread pricing, results in PBMs making millions of dollars in profits each year.
How does PBM spread pricing increase healthcare costs for patients?
PBM spread pricing affects healthcare costs in two distinct ways: increased insurance premiums and decreased access to care. As PBMs continue to inflate the cost of prescription drugs, insurers are billed more and more by their PBMs. These expenses directly fall on the shoulders of the government and the healthcare companies, who represent the public and private payer sector. In turn, to keep up with increased billing, public and private payers turn to their beneficiaries to help them pay the PBMs via increased healthcare plan premiums, decreased coverage, and larger copays. Concurrently, as the PBMs reimburse pharmacies less and less for medication dispensing, pharmacies, especially independent ones, try to operate on thinner profit margins. Over time, the low reimbursement rates culminate in decreased clinical services or, in the worst case, pharmacies closing permanently.
What does the Build Back Better Act do to help?
Egregious billing practices by PBMs have been in the spotlight for several years now. In 2018, Ohio’s Department of Medicaid released a report showing that PBMs charged the state of Ohio $224 million in hidden spread pricing. The audit results led to Ohio terminating all PBM contracts with the Department of Medicaid and converting to a single-PBM system where spread pricing could be monitored better. Another report, this time in Utah, showed that PBM’s received $1.5 million from spread pricing in 2018. Similarly in 2019, a Kentucky report found that PBMs retained $123 million in spread pricing in that state. Several states have enacted laws targeting PBM spread pricing as the federal government continues to skirt around the issue. For example, Louisiana prohibits all PBMs from using spread pricing unless a PBM provides written notice of the practice to the health insurer and the policy holder. Louisiana also enacted a law stating that PBMs could not reimburse pharmacies at a lower rate than they do their affiliated pharmacies. This directly targets suspicions that CVS Caremark reimburses CVS pharmacies more to eliminate competition and steer patients towards filling their medications at CVS pharmacies. Like Louisiana, Maine enacted a law stating that PBMs could not participate in spread pricing without proper notice to the state. On October 1st, 2021, North Carolina’s Senate Bill 257 will take effect. This bill requires PBMs to apply for business licenses with the Commissioner of the Department of Insurance, subjecting them to more spread pricing regulations and threats of restitution to pharmacies they reimburse unfairly. While the states’ efforts are not perfect solutions, they are necessary efforts to regulate PBMs more. The federal government’s efforts to increase transparency is unnecessary due to the public recognition of PBM spread pricing. Every state audit that shows gross spread pricing is transparent enough to alert the federal government that PBMs pose a widespread problem to our healthcare system without greater restrictions. PBMs need to be controlled directly through regulations targeted towards preventing and prohibiting spread pricing, rather than asked to report every six months just how much they profit off their deceptive billing practices.