By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras
The rising cost of health care is a sore point for all consumers and nowhere is it more glaring than at the pharmacy counter. However, consumers are largely unaware that Pharmacy Benefit Managers – or PBMs – are the middlemen working behind the scenes with very little competition and accountability. There are now just three PBMs that account for about 77% of all equivalent prescription claims. This lack of competition allows PBMs to easily manipulate the price and make it impossible for consumers to get a fair deal.
There is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the rising cost of prescription drugs. But PBMs ultimately control which medicines we get (and don’t get) and how much we pay out of pocket for them. That’s exactly why the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)– whose mission is to protect consumers and competition – has requested public comments on the ways these large, middlemen companies are affecting drug affordability and access.
I recently led a discussion with key experts to discuss this issue. NCL’s Executive Director Sally Greenberg, Former FTC Policy Director David Balto, and HIV + Hepatitis Policy Institute Executive Director Carl Schmid, shared their insights with us.
David Balto explained, “There are three things needed for a market to really function effectively – you need to have choice (competition); second, transparency – that is you know what you’re getting and what the benefit of the bargain is; and third, that there’s no conflict of interest. In the PBM market, PBMs fail on all three grounds.”
PBMs initially came into existence to streamline how consumers get their medicines and were intended to lower costs. However, as Sally Greenberg pointed out, “The fact that PBMs have the influence and decision-making authority they do should be concerning for all consumers. PBMs have the power to negotiate discounts with drug manufacturers, they work with insurance companies to determine which drugs will ultimately be covered, and they work with pharmacists to reimburse them for dispensing drugs. All along the way, they’ve found ways to profit – and all along the way this impedes the savings that should be going to consumers.”
Carl Schmid shared more about how this impacts patients, “We’re now seeing the creation of specialty drugs or specialty tier (on formularies). This is a term created totally by the PBMs…now it’s just any new drug – all HIV drugs, all Hepatitis drugs, all cancer drugs – they’re all specialty drugs these days and they put them in the highest tier. And this not only creates higher out-of-pocket costs for patients, but it’s also discriminatory.”
These unfair PBM practices lead to unnecessarily high out-of-pocket costs for prescriptions while PBMs continue to find ways to game the system to their benefit. The FTC wants to hear from consumers and patients who have been negatively impacted by these PBM practices.