Consumers face an unfair disadvantage at the pharmacy counter
By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Everywhere we turn these days, we find ourselves wondering if we are getting a fair deal. Americans continue to suffer the economic consequences of a year-long global health pandemic, and many of us are trying to stick to the essentials and stretch our dollars where we can. As COVID-19 has reminded us, there aren’t many issues families face that are more significant than access to health care.
Families can’t go without essential prescriptions and often wonder why the price seems to go up each time they go for a refill. In fact, we are likely paying more than necessary at the pharmacy counter, but we don’t often know — or even think to ask — why.
A variety of factors drive drug costs, some of which are obvious: the cost of research and development, distributing the product, the pharmacies’ profits – but there is one far less known cause of price increases: PBMs, short for pharmacy benefit managers.
Most people have never heard of PBMs, and PBMs like it that way. They are billion-dollar companies that control more than 80 percent of the prescription drug formularies, (formularies are the lists of drugs that a health plan allows its members to access) — in the United States.
Because of their outsized role, too often PBMs determine how much consumers, businesses, government agencies, and others pay for medicines. As originally conceived, PBMs were meant to help ensure that patients get a fair deal by:
- working with manufacturers to ensure rebates (or savings) for medications
- working with insurance companies to determine which medications are covered
- working with pharmacies to set the price points and help reimburse pharmacies for dispensing prescriptions.
In theory, PBMs should be lowering costs for everyone. However, as they have evolved and grown, they’ve become greedy and self-serving entities, scooping up discounts for themselves and throwing consumers under the bus. All the while, their profits continue to soar as they are all among the top Fortune 500 companies.
Sadly, PBMs have also found ways to manipulate the system and put their own profits first.
Insulin is a prime example. Diabetes patients who need their medication to survive are increasingly left with fewer options for treatment. When PBMs get involved, consumer costs increase.
One recent analysis found that the total value of rebates and discounts for insulin on an annual basis amounts to more than $5,000 per patient. Another report explained that the net price on one insulin product — what the company earns as revenue — declined by 53 percent since 2012, while the list price increased 141 percent. As the WSJ story explains, this is in part due to PBM middlemen meddling. In order to ensure formulary positions (which PBMs control), companies are paying more and more each year.
Consumers don’t know where high drug prices come from and they shouldn’t have to — the system needs to deliver affordable, accessible, safe and effective medications without any entities taking an unfair or hidden profit. The stakes are too high as we look ahead to the health challenges that millions face with the Covid pandemic.
NCL joins with many other groups, including America’s Agenda, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, HMC Healthworks, Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, National Community Pharmacists Association, National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations, Diabetes Leadership Council, and Diabetes Patient Advocacy Coalition in helping to expose hidden, and frankly, indefensible profits being directed to the coffers of PBMs — money that should be redirected to bring drug prices down for patients and consumers.
Let’s all ask hard questions about PBMs’ role in our healthcare system and whether we can’t be using the profits they are taking to lower drug costs. Share this story with others. Talk with your friends and family. Ask your local pharmacist questions.
Consumers – not PBMs — should come first at the pharmacy counter. Stay tuned for more from us on this, and let’s continue the conversation.