The hidden cost-driverWith all this as a backdrop, the cost of prescription drugs is one of the largest challenges facing group health plan enrollees, especially those who are enrolled in high-deductible health plans, whose out-of-pocket expenses for pharmaceuticals can be especially burdensome. It is the hidden cost-driver in the system. The Kaiser survey found that about 90% of covered workers are enrolled in plans where the health plan deductible must be met before prescription drugs are covered. But, this number has been shrinking as group coverage pricing increases and employers shift more of the cost burden to employees. There are a few ways that employees are taking on a significant load with their drug expenditures:
- First, more workers are enrolled in plans that carve out prescription drugs, meaning that their expenditures on medication do not count towards satisfying their health plan deductibles. About 13% of employees are enrolled in a plan with a separate annual deductible that applies only to prescription drugs.
- Many people with workers face out-of-pocket costs linked to prescription list prices regardless of the actual net, post-rebate costs. That’s because coinsurance percentages are computed based on the price negotiated between the pharmacy and the plan or pharmacy benefit manager. These negotiated prices are typically close to list prices. Even worse, patients pay the entire negotiated price when they are within a deductible and do not enjoy the benefits of rebates that the PBM may have negotiated with drug makers. Patients with these benefit designs do not benefit from rebates, though major brand-name drug makers sell their products at half of the list prices.
- In the past, health plans had two- or three-tier benefit designs for drugs, mostly for generics and brand-name drugs, with lower copays and coinsurance for the lowest-tier medicines. But as prices have started increasing, many plans have four tiers and sometimes five (the specialty tier). The disappearance of two- and three-tier benefit designs have made out-of-pocket expenses especially high for specialty drugs. Plans place therapies for such chronic, complex illnesses as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and HIV on the fourth and specialty tiers of benefit plan, for which the enrollee has to pay a larger share.