By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras
As consumers, when we go to the pharmacy for our medications, we expect a fair price. However, there’s growing evidence that pharmacy benefit managers — or PBMs — have been impeding the savings that should be going to consumers. Consumers deserve to share in the cost savings, and we need policymakers to step in and help make that happen.
We previously wrote about our disappointment in how PBMs have evolved from once honest brokers to becoming profit driven and greedy, now taking savings away from consumers and patients.
One avenue PBMs use to pocket savings is through pharmaceutical rebates. PBMs negotiate with companies to lock in discounts for drugs in order to secure the drugs’ placement on a list (formulary). PBMs have notoriously leveraged formularies to give greatest access to the drugs that pay the PBMs the largest rebates, leaving less expensive drugs off-limits to consumers.
A recent Senate Finance Committee report found that rebates to PBMs have significantly increased since 2013 (some as high as 70 percent). But these discounts fail to lower the patients’ out-of-pocket costs for necessary treatments, such as insulin. For one product, the manufacturer offered the PBM a 56 percent rebate – which means more than half of the savings for insulin are going to a company that doesn’t even make the lifesaving medication.
Insulin is expensive. Forbes recently reported that newer versions cost patients between $175 and $300 a vial. The story points out diabetes patients need multiple vials, the cost of which add up quickly; the total annual value of rebates and discounts for PBMs is likely to be more than $5,000 per patient. As a result, consumers lose, paying more than many of them can afford for lifesaving drugs.
Another way PBMs profit is by avoiding competition, which would drive value and savings for consumers. Three main PBMs accounted for about 60 percent of all U.S. prescription claims in 2019. And when it comes to insulin, with so few industry players, it’s no surprise that consumers again find themselves on the losing end.
We’re pleased to see that some policymakers in the states are taking steps to address these issues. In New Jersey, the state is shaking things up by creating alternatives to how it contracts with PBMs — which is, in turn, increasing competition and benefitting consumers. New Jersey residents are saving a bundle (to the tune of $2.5 billion over five years).
In New Hampshire, a recent study shows that the state can expect to save an estimated $17.8-$22.2 million annually thanks to legislation that will utilize a similar competitive PBM contract process.
While this is encouraging news, there is still more work to be done to bring to light the role of PBMs. Policymakers need to step in to ensure PBMs deliver savings to patients as they were originally intended to do. We’re encouraging state and federal action to review the role PBMs play in driving up costs and to address the many loopholes they use to increase profits.
Consumers — not PBMs — should come first at the pharmacy counter. Reach out to your elected officials. Share this story on social media to help raise awareness. And stay tuned as we continue the conversation.