NCL on Upcoming Congressional Hearings with UnitedHealth Group CEO Andrew Witty

April 30, 2024

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

Washington, DC – Tomorrow, the Senate Finance Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee will hear from UnitedHealth Group CEO on the insurance company’s cyberattack that put millions of medical records and patient privacy at risk.

The cyberattack is, of course, cause for concern, but there are also several other ways major insurance companies like UnitedHealth Group are hurting consumers. These companies have taken over the prescription drug marketplace – they are integrated with the pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) who gatekeep our prescriptions, limiting access and increasing out-of-pocket costs.

Here are the top questions American consumers deserve answers to:

  • How will your company work to not only protect patient data going forward, but also protect patient choice and power in their healthcare decision-making?
  • Can you explain the relationships and makeup of UHG, Optum Rx, and Optum Health? How does this vertical integration give consumers a fair choice when it comes to their health when there is a clear incentive to keep patients – and thus profit – in the UHG family?
  • UnitedHealth Group’s PBM Optum Rx claims to benefit consumers by negotiating rebates with drug manufacturers – why, then, aren’t consumers experiencing lower costs at the pharmacy counter?
  • How much does Optum Rx collect each year in rebates from drug manufacturers? How much profit does the UHG corporation rake in from prescription drug purchases?
  • Is UHG aware of the significant health and financial challenges that prior authorization requirements impose on consumers and their families?

The insurance industry is riddled with poor incentives that ultimately hurt consumers. Lawmakers have an opportunity this week to shine a light on these problems. We need bipartisan reforms to give consumers more power when it comes to their prescriptions, and ultimately, their health.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.

NCL responds to Senators Crapo, Wyden announcement on needed PBM reforms

March 14, 2024

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

Washington, DC – The National Consumers League (NCL) today released a statement following Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) recent press conference announcing their push to include bipartisan PBM reforms in the broader funding package.

The following statement is attributable to NCL Chief Executive Officer, Sally Greenberg:

“For far too long now, PBMs have been taking advantage of our drug pricing system, finding ways to increase their profits without delivering value to consumers. Now, after years of investigations, pharmacy closures and high out-of-pocket costs, our leaders are doing something about it. By disconnecting Medicare prescription drug costs from PBM profits, this legislation will address one of the many ways PBMs use the system to their financial advantage. Congress has a huge opportunity to help seniors better afford and access the medications they need. We urge Congress to get this done without delay.”

Learn more about NCL’s work to address the PBM problem here.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.

Nancy Glick

It’s time to care about obesity care

Nancy GlickBy Nancy Glick, Director of Food and Nutrition Policy

Every year, the calendar is full of national health observances – special months, weeks and days that raise awareness of serious diseases and health issues. While all are valuable to advance the health of the Americans, Obesity Care Week taking place March 4-8 is especially significant.

Why?  Because even though the adult obesity rate now exceeds 42 percent – the highest level ever recorded – obesity is still viewed as a problem of lack of willpower, too many health professionals act in discriminatory ways based on people’s size, and those seeking obesity care often face exclusions in insurance plans or restrictive practices that delay or deny treatment.

The consequence is that that only 10 percent of people with obesity get help from medical professionals, meaning the disease remains largely undiagnosed and undertreated.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a variety of safe and effective treatment options. And medical societies, including the American Medical Association (AMA), agree that obesity is a complex disease requiring ongoing quality care. The key is for society – including health professionals, insurers and policymakers – to care about obesity and agree that treatment matters. Here are the reasons why.

It is long past time for health professionals, employers, insurers, policymakers and the American public to care about obesity and work collectively to break down the barriers that prevent people from accessing proper care and treatment. This is the purpose of Obesity Care Week – to shine a light on a disease that no one has wanted to talk or think about and shift the way society views obesity and treats the disease.

Obesity Care Week is also an opportunity to call attention to the first Obesity Bill of Rights for the nation, developed by NCL and the National Council on Aging in consultation with leading obesity specialists and issued in January 2024. Starting with the recognition that obesity is a treatable disease, the Obesity Bill of Rights establishes eight essential rights so adults will receive the same level of attention and care as those with other chronic conditions and have access to all treatments deemed appropriate by their health providers. Now is the time to advance changes in federal, state, and employer policies that will ensure these rights are incorporated into medical practice.

More information about the Obesity Bill of Rights is available at: www.right2obesitycare.org.

A coalition of consumer, health groups – including NCL – call for nutrition, ingredient, and allergen labeling on alcoholic beverages

February 27, 2024

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

Washington, DC – A coalition of consumer and health groups is urging Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to ensure that the agency responsible for regulating most alcoholic beverages in the U.S. – the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) – keeps its commitment to require standardized alcohol labeling on all beer, wine, and distilled spirits products by initiating three promised rulemakings on nutrition, ingredients, and allergen labeling on an accelerated basis.

The appeal comes in the form of a February 27 letter from five leading public interest groups as TTB begins a series of “listening sessions” on labeling and advertising of alcoholic beverages on February 28. Raising concerns that the listening sessions are no more than a delay tactic to maintain the status quo and “slow walk deliberations for months,” the organizations – the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Consumer Federation of America (CFA), Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), and National Consumers League (NCL) – called for TTB to publish the rulemakings by June 2024.

The Treasury Department promised that TTB would issue mandatory alcohol labeling rules in a November 17, 2022 letter in response to a lawsuit filed by CSPI, NCL, and CFA. The Department stated its intention to publish the three rulemakings before the end of 2023.

“We write … to express our dismay and serious concern that TTB has backtracked from its written undertaking of the November 17, 2022 agreement,” the groups wrote to Secretary Yellen. “TTB has, in effect, enabled recalcitrant companies by delaying indefinitely rulemakings on mandatory alcohol labeling while opting for a voluntary rule under which labeling “Serving Facts” or “Alcohol Facts” and ingredients are optional.”

Focusing on the health consequences of delaying action on alcohol labeling, the letter from advocates to Secretary Yellen describes how better alcohol labeling will benefit the 84 percent of U.S. adults who drink alcoholic beverages – 216 million people – and who currently do not have the facts about the alcohol they are consuming to protect their health and safety. Overconsumption of alcohol is a costly public health problem that has become much worse in recent years, as alcohol-related deaths have risen substantially. Among the key concerns, alcohol is involved in about 30 percent of all traffic crash fatalities in the U.S, is a source of empty calories that contributes to obesity, can impact blood sugar control in people with diabetes, and labeling can be a life-or-death matter for people with food allergies. Additionally, excessive drinking increases the risk of liver disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, alcohol use disorders, certain cancers and severe injuries.

“The consensus among public health and nutrition experts and consumers themselves, in favor of mandatory and complete alcohol labeling is overwhelming,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America. “By reneging on its promise to initiate rulemakings, TTB continues to deny Americans the same helpful and easily accessible labeling information now required for conventional foods, dietary supplements, and nonprescription drugs.”

The letter to Secretary Yellen also stresses that alcohol manufacturers have the capability to put standardized Serving Facts labels on their products, when required. This is the case for products such as some hard ciders, hard seltzers, and wine coolers that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which requires such products to have the same Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients statements on nonalcoholic beverages, from soft drinks to juices.

“To date, TTB has taken the position that requiring standardized nutrient content labeling on alcoholic beverages is too costly and burdensome for beverage alcohol manufacturers,” said Sally Greenberg, CEO of the National Consumers League. “However, the inconvenient truth for the industry is that some of the very same companies whose products do not include a Serving Facts statement if they are regulated by TTB already put complete alcohol labeling on their hard ciders, hard seltzers, wine coolers, and other FDA regulated wines and beers.”

Highlighting that the time has come for mandatory alcohol labeling, the letter makes clear that the agency’s current voluntary labeling rules are not working. Although the rule gives companies the option of putting “Serving Facts” or “Alcohol Facts” and ingredients information on their products, new research from the Center for Science in the Public Interest finds that most manufacturers have opted out of TTB’s voluntary program. Using TTB’s COLA database to examine the labels for 132 of the nation’s top beer and wine brands, CSPI’s study found that only 11 labels of the 65 beer brands examined (17%) and none of the 67 wine brands included ingredients lists while 18 beers (28%) and no wines used the voluntary “Serving Facts” label, and one additional beer brand carried the voluntary “Alcohol Facts” label. CSPI’s review also showed that even when serving information is included on beer and wine labels, there is no standard format for where and how the disclosures appear, making it hard for consumers to find information easily and compare different brands.

“We have the data that demonstrate that Treasury’s voluntary rule has failed to adequately improve transparency in alcohol labeling,” said Dr. Peter G. Lurie, President of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Ensuring that the agency ends this ineffective voluntary regime by issuing mandatory labeling rules necessitates national leadership. This is why we are appealing directly to Secretary Yellen to intercede personally to require the agency to commit to publish all three proposed rules by June 2024.”

The 2022 letter whereby TTB undertook to publish standardized alcohol content, calorie, and allergen labeling by the end of 2023 resulted from a lawsuit filed by Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, and the National Consumers League on October 3, 2022. The suit charged TTB with failing to act on a citizen petitionsubmitted to the Treasury Department in 2003 to mandate alcohol labeling. CSPI, CFA, and NCL filed the petition along with a coalition of 66 other organizations and eight individuals, including four deans of schools of public health.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.

The 340B drug discount program should be helping patients in need, not boosting pharmacy chain profits

By Sally Greenberg, Chief Executive Officer, National Consumers League

The federal 340B drug discount program is a worthy and critical program. Created by Congress in 1992, it mandates that pharmaceutical manufacturers participating in the Medicaid program must offer prescription medicines at discounted rates to community health centers and safety-net hospitals serving low-income and uninsured patients. Over the years, this program has given vulnerable patients access to the drugs they need and freed up resources for the qualified facilities to offer more health care services to indigent communities.

Over the past decade or so, however, this valuable program has been increasingly corporatized by for profit entities known to increase costs for consumers including middlemen like pharmacy benefit managers and pharmacy chains. Too many of the dollars circulating through the 340B program are benefiting the well-off and for-profit corporations, instead of consumers with significant health and financial needs. News stories have shined a spotlight on big health systems using the program to bolster profits, while hallowing out critical resources in underserved areas. However, more attention needs to be given to the billions of 340B dollars going to major pharmacy chains like CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Rite-Aid that are not benefiting the patients this program is intended to serve. Increasingly, however, policymakers at the federal and state level are suggesting bailing out these for-profit entities under the guides of “contract pharmacy” legislation.

Here’s the problem: In 2010, the federal government issued guidelines allowing 340B-eligible health providers to contract with for-profit retail pharmacies to dispense medications, with virtually no rules or safeguards. Since that time, the number of pharmacies participating in the 340B program has grown from 789 in 2009 to over 25,000 today. If this meant more access to affordable drugs for consumer, that would be one thing, but this has not been the case. As contract pharmacies have increased, so too has consumer challenges affording their medicines, nearly in parallel. For example:

  • Even though 340B contract pharmacies are receiving drugs at discounted prices, there is no evidence they are passing those savings onto consumers. One analysis from the respected IQVIA firm found that 340B discounts were shared with consumers in only 1.5 percent of eligible pharmacy claims.
  • Although the 340B program is intended to benefit underserved, vulnerable communities with high proportions of poor and uninsured patients, hospitals in the program are contracting with pharmacies that are not, in fact, in areas afflicted with poverty and a scarcity of health care services.
  • The vast majority of 340B contract pharmacy arrangements are with the aforementioned big national chains like CVS and Walgreens, which are enjoying enormous profits as a result of their participation in the drug discount program. Contract pharmacies collected an estimated $13 billion in gross profits in 2018, with a 72% profit margin on 340B drugs (because they are getting those drugs at a steep discount, which they don’t share with consumers). Needless to say, fattening corporate pharmacy profits should not be this program’s mission.

Contract pharmacy abuse of the 340B program has not gone unnoticed by policymakers in Washington. In January 2024, leaders in the U.S. Senate questioned CVS Health and Walgreens as part of as part of an ongoing investigation into how health care entities use and generate revenue from the 340B Drug Pricing Program. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Health and Human Service Office of the Inspector General (OIG), also highlighted issues with the program’s integrity as it relates to contract pharmacy use. 340B is in desperate need of transparency and oversight, not unfettered expansion.

Yet that is exactly what is happening in some U.S. states. This matter is taking on a greater urgency now as several states are contemplating legislation that doubles down on the problem instead of fixing it. Consumers would be shocked to learn their state representatives are ushering through changes that would further solidify the profitable role these large corporate contract pharmacies are playing in the abused 340B program. Policymakers at the state and federal level need to address a fundamental question – where do 340B savings go? And when the answer is to corporate pharmacy giants – not patients – it’s time to reconsider ill-conceived policies giving contract pharmacies even more access to 340B drug discounts.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.

Consumer struggles with Native American healthcare

By Sam Sears, Health Policy Associate, National Consumers League

My name is Sam Sears, and I am the new Health Policy Associate working at the National Consumers League. I am excited to be working with Robin, Sally, and the rest of the staff at NCL. Consumer issues regarding health care, specifically access and confidence, are wide-reaching and I am thrilled to be able to lend my growing expertise and experience to support the cause and NCL.

I always thought I would end up in healthcare, but my younger self had always envisioned my work with a much more narrowed focus. Academically, my background is in policy and gender studies, where I focused on equal protections for women and queer, specifically related to intimate partner violence and protections and reproductive justice. After graduation, I worked as a barista while also taking placements through a temp agency here in DC, focusing on nonprofits and advocacy organizations. It was, in part, due to the temp placements that I found myself working on broader health policy issues such as the 340B Drug Pricing program and health care access for individuals.

Before joining NCL, I worked at the National Council of Urban Indian Health (NCUIH) for two years, where I was able to learn quite a bit about the healthcare delivery system for Native Americans and the barriers to access that they often face. While NCUIH’s focus is centered on ensuring that Native Americans living in urban settings have access to quality, accessible, and culturally competent health services, much of the work is done collaboratively with other advocates and organizations working within the space. Because of this, my work at NCUIH often was encompassing issues facing the larger community.

Upon joining NCL, I realized that a prominent problem for Native Americans is a much larger area of concern for all Americans and their healthcare – the pervasive and misleading Medicare Advantage plan advertisements seen on television. In fact, in a letter to Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) and Dr. Brooks-LaSure, the CMS Tribal Technical Advisory Group, a group of 17 representatives comprised of elected Tribal leaders or appointed representatives and representatives of national Indian organizations headquartered in DC, highlighted how Medicare Advantage (MA) plans have been “aggressive and invasive when marketing their plans”.

A Kaiser Family Foundation report on the 1,200 unique ads, mostly for MA plans, aired during the enrollment window found that 27% led beneficiaries into thinking they were being recruited for traditional Medicare plans. For Native Americans, this aggressive marketing has led people to enroll in plans that do not include local Indian Health Service providers, meaning they lose coverage and no longer able to go to the doctors they trust to care for them in a culturally competent manner. This confusion is not limited to just Native Americans, as Dr. Brooks-LaSure has stated previously.

It’s important to note that CMS has been addressing the misinformation and confusion from these ads. In April of 2023, the agency released a final rule regarding Medicare Advantage marketing and communications, amongst other Medicare part plans and related topics. Specifically, CMS must now pre-approve all television MA plan advertisements that will air during the open enrollment period, minimizing the opportunity for misinformation and predatory practices within the ads. CMS has also significantly increased its ability to investigate complaints about misleading agents and advertisements. This regulation, while large and with rolling applicability dates, will apply to the 2024 contract year for MA plan marketing and communication, meaning that the open and re-enrollment period at the tail end of the 2024 calendar year will be drastically different.

As I stated earlier, many of the issues that I had worked on while with NCUIH are also applicable to the broader population and community who struggle with access to healthcare. So, I am excited to be able to continue to work on these consumer issues with NCL. And I am eager to see how NCL could support and expand on the work I’ve been able to touch on through my other positions.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.

PBMs claim new programs will save consumers money. Let’s take a closer look.

By Robin Strongin, Senior Director of Health Policy

Consumers have known for quite some time now that the prescription drug pricing system is essentially a black box. Dealings among drug manufacturers, health insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) establish which drugs insurance will cover and make accessible to consumers. What’s more, the prices that consumers pay for those medicines vary wildly – often leading to high out-of-pocket costs for us all.

Two of the three major PBM companies that are in the middle of this drug pricing web recently announced that they are establishing new programs (CVS’s CostVantage and Express Scripts’ ClearNetwork) that set transparent formulas for drugs with a pre-set markup and a flat fee for the PBMs. On paper, this sounds like a great idea.

But consumers would be wise to take these claims with a healthy grain of proverbial salt. We know PBMs continue to find new ways to put themselves over patients (more on that here) and we must demand answers to the issues the PBMs are still skirting. For example:

  • Will these new programs actually make prescription drugs more affordable and reduce out-of-pocket costs at the pharmacy counter? Notably, both Express Scripts and CVS Health have acknowledged that employers and plan sponsors may not save any money from this move. There is no sign either that consumers will be able to get the drugs they need for a fair price.
  • While the companies boast increased transparency, they still have not shared – nor said they will share – how much they are paying to acquire the drugs that will be dispensed to patients. PBM clients have long sought this information, but it appears that data will still be hidden in the black box.
  • In the case of CVS Health, the changes the company announced will only be effective at CVS-owned pharmacies. It will not affect how CVS will reimburse millions of prescriptions at the local and independent pharmacies it doesn’t own. A cynic might say this is just another mechanism by CVS to drive more patients to its own pharmacies.

Most notably, nothing CVS Health and Express Scripts have announced will change one of the pervasive anti-consumer elements of the drug pricing system. In their dealings with drugmakers, they can still cut deals that will determine which medicines get preferential placement. This means PBMs could continue to push consumers toward higher-priced drugs and limit access to more affordable generics and biosimilars.

It’s no coincidence that Congress is getting closer to passing PBM reform legislation that would mandate transparency, force the PBMs to pass their negotiated savings from drugmakers to consumers and remove the incentives for PBMs to push consumers to higher-priced drugs. One might say that these moves by CVS and Express Scripts are cosmetic attempts to ward off legislation by touting their own self-reforms.

But, as with so much that goes on in the drug pricing game, these “reforms” may not be what they seem. We need Congress to step in for consumers to help ensure we’re no longer facing a big disadvantage at the pharmacy counter.

Learn more about the PBM problem at nclnet.org/pbms.

NCL comments regarding Proposed Rule: Medication Guides: Patient Medication Information Docket No. FDA-2019-N-5959

November 21, 2023

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

The National Consumers League recently submitted comments regarding the Proposed Rule, Medication Guides: Patient Medication Information, that we believe will greatly improve the information patients receive with their prescription medicines.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.

NCL applauds the confirmation of Monica Bertagnolli as next NIH director

November 9, 2023

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

The National Consumers League (NCL) applauds the U.S. Senate’s decision to confirm Dr. Monica Bertagnolli to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This past Tuesday, the Senate voted 62-36 for Bertagnolli to take over the leadership role at NIH – a role that has been vacant for nearly two years. Preceding Bertagnolli was 2022 Trumpeter Honoree Dr. Francis Collins, who served as NIH director for more than 12 years.

“Dr. Bertagnolli brings a wealth of knowledge and experience,” said NCL CEO Sally Greenberg. “As a surgical oncologist, former director of the National Cancer Institute, and former president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Dr. Bertagnolli is the right person to oversee the NIH as this important agency serves a critical role in advancing public health.”

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.

National Consumers League praises FTC’s multilingual fraud reporting announcement

November 8, 2023

Media contact: National Consumers League – Melody Merin, melodym@nclnet.org, 202-207-2831

The National Consumers League (NCL), America’s oldest consumer advocacy organization today praised the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) announcement that consumers can now file fraud and identity complaints in their preferred languages. NCL is the home of the Fraud.org campaign, which is a long-time contributor of complaint data to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network as well as being an ally in the Commission’s efforts to educate consumers about frauds.

The following statement is attributable to NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud, John Breyault:

“All consumers are at risk of fraud, regardless of the language they speak. Making it easier for fraud victims to report these crimes in their own language to the FTC is a critically important step in the fight against scams. We are thrilled with today’s announcement and look forward to continuing to work with the Commission and our allies in the anti-fraud community to protect consumers from criminal scammers.”

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.