Patients threatened by new drug coverage limits
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s toughest fight wasn’t on a basketball court.
In his early 60s, the six-time NBA champion was diagnosed with leukemia, the deadly blood cancer. Fortunately, Abdul-Jabbar had access to state-of-the-art medications, including the advanced drug Tasigna, which paralyzed his cancer cells and prevented further growth. Today, eight years after his initial diagnosis, Abdul-Jabbar is thriving and cancer-free.
Unfortunately, many of today’s leukemia patients won’t be so lucky. CVS Health, the nation’s second-largest pharmacy benefit manager that oversees 65 million Americans’ drug plans, recently rescinded coverage for Tasigna –— and 130 other specialty drugs.
As a result, millions of people could be denied access to drugs that could save their lives. Instead of prescribing the medicines best-suited to patient needs, physicians will be forced to recommend lower-quality treatments.
Pharmacy benefit managers, or “PBMs” for short, administer the prescription drug plans used by health insurers and employers. In recent years, these organizations have gotten stingy about which drugs they cover.
Back in 2012, the nation’s largest PBM, Express Scripts, excluded no medicines from its list of covered drugs, while CVS Health left off about 30. Today, they exclude more than 200, including an array of popular treatments for arthritis, Hepatitis C, and various skin conditions.
PBMs have also stopped paying for cutting-edge cancer treatments. In addition to Tasigna, CVS won’t cover the revolutionary prostate cancer treatment Xtandi. Meanwhile, Express Scripts just stopped covering Zyclara, a cream that can help prevent skin cancer.
PBMs are restricting drug access in other, more devious ways as well.
CVS is also steering patients away from ultra-complex “biologic” drugs, forcing them to switch to lower-cost treatments the company claims are medically equivalent. But in many cases these less expensive therapies, known as “biosimilars,” aren’t approved by the FDA to be interchangeable with their brand name alternatives.
Consider one study that compared the effectiveness of a Crohn’s disease treatment and its biosimilar. An alarming eight in 10 patients who took the biosimilar required a hospital readmission for additional treatment, compared to only one in 20 who took the original drug.
Despite these disturbing results, PBMs are comfortable forcing patients to use biosimilars and generic medications. That’s because their only concern is bringing down short-term drug spending — even if those savings come at a cost to patients’ well-being.
Ironically, this strategy will end up raising health care costs in the long-run. If doctors can only prescribe less-effective treatments, folks will get sicker, be hospitalized more frequently, and require more expensive care. That demand will drive up overall healthcare costs and overwhelm doctors and hospitals with waves of new patients.
That doesn’t matter to PBMs, though. A dollar saved by avoiding top-notch drugs is a dollar that goes into PBMs’ pockets — even if the patient becomes sicker on less effective treatments and racks up much larger hospital bills for insurers and patients to pay down the road.
PBMs coverage denials are a deadly prescription for America’s patients. By shrinking coverage for cutting-edge treatments, PBMs are forcing sick people to use substandard drugs. It’s about time patients mount a full-court press against this callous behavior.
Peter J. Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner, is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.