Tap Dancing to Therapeuic Failure

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  • 10/21/2014

From the pages of the Morning Consult.

Stepping Towards Failure

By Robert Popovian

As healthcare professionals, we should always do what is best for the patient. This includes practicing evidence-based medicine. Unfortunately a growing practice of the healthcare ecosystem ignores this principle: the institution of payer policies that try and curb pharmaceutical utilization. One such policy is “Fail First” or “Step Therapy”. This “utilization management” strategy is when a payer, often a Pharmacy Benefit Manager, decides that a patient must first try and fail on one or more medicines that their physician did not select. This can mean forcing the patient to take a drug that had been previously tried – and failed to work – or even mean a patient is forced by the payer to take a medicine that does not have an FDA indication for their disease. The patient suffers through weeks, if not months, of inappropriate therapies all in the name of cost-effectiveness. There are instances when this type of policy is truly cost saving such as when an AB rated generic is required first, and greater use of real world evidence including the patient’s treatment history could target the right patient for this type of intervention, but applying the policy broadly means that patients needlessly experience substandard treatment.

Today, 70 percent of employer-sponsored insurance plans use this approach to control medication costs. Payers assert that by mandating physicians to follow a certain prescribing algorithm that the “per member per month” pharmacy costs will be lowered. However, payers don’t consider whether it will also result in overall reductions in healthcare costs or an improvement in patient outcomes or even long term savings in pharmacy expenditures. In addition, no consideration is given to the indirect costs incurred by physicians who now have to shuffle patients in and out of their offices for additional visits to ensure that they will eventually get to use the appropriate drug the physician had selected for them in the first place.

More importantly, payers don’t define what “failure” means for a patient. Is “failure” simply a lack of efficacy of the payer’s drug choice? Is “failure” a hospitalization incurred because of the payer’s pre-determined algorithm? Or worse, is “failure” a patient who is now seriously ill because they had to endure an ineffective therapy? As Dr. Brenda Motheral pointed out in her findings published in The American Journal of Managed Care, 17 percent of patients on step therapy algorithms end up without any treatments as they get left behind in the administrative maze.

Another interesting point is that when patients reach the zenith of their fail first/step therapy regimen and have the opportunity to utilize the drug that was chosen initially by their provider, they are hit with significant out-of-pocket costs because such medications are usually in higher copay or co-insurance tiers. So not only did the patients have to endure months of ineffective or at times hazardous therapy, they now have the burden of paying higher out-of-pocket costs.

Remarkably, there is absolutely no evidence that fail first/step therapy provides a reduction in overall healthcare costs and improvements in patient outcomes short or long term. There is no empirical data published in peer reviewed journals that demonstrates definitively that there are both health benefits and cost savings from these policies. In fact, despite evidence of potential harm (i.e., patients ending up on no therapy), payers have not been required, nor have they taken the initiative, to demonstrate that fail first/step therapy policies are safe for patients. Payers quite often and at times rightfully ask biopharmaceutical companies to provide safety and efficacy data or ever-expanding pharmacoeconomic product dossiers for their products. Payers also demand that physicians justify every single intervention they utilize through mounds of paperwork. Isn’t it time to make payers provide a similar level of evidence for their policies?

As Dr. Motheral pointed out, “Adoption of step therapy is quickly outpacing decision makers’ understanding of the clinical, humanistic, and economic value of these programs.” In other words, we have no idea what the outcomes are but payers continue to demand patients should trust their decisions rather than those of their own doctors.

Utilization management is an important part of ensuring that this country’s significant investment in healthcare is used efficiently. However, policies without clear clinical rationale that achieve short term cost savings at the expense of long term health isn’t efficient. Let’s use the growing wealth of real world patient experience data to ensure the right people get the right treatment as quickly as possible, and that money isn’t wasted in the wrong places. This should apply not just to medicines but other parts of the healthcare system.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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