This fall, most Americans were outraged at revelations that the price of life-saving EpiPens had increased by 600 percent since 2007. The anger over the drastic price increase for EpiPens focused attention on the role that pharmacy benefit managers play in the increase of drug prices. Pharmacy benefit managers administer drug formularies, so the use of drug formularies should also be questioned on prescription price control in addition to the question of whether drug formularies shift costs to more expensive treatment.
Pharmacy benefit managers have been praised for helping negotiate drug discounts. However, pharmacy benefit managers have been criticized on the same grounds because their profitability depends in large part on being able to pocket a percentage of the discount that they negotiate. This is a lucrative business. Express Scripts is described by Wall Street-types as a “pure play” pharmacy benefit manager. In the last quarter, Express Scripts made $722.9 million in profit, a 9 percent year-over-year increase.
In addition to being criticized for benefiting from the increase in pharmacy costs, pharmacy benefit managers have also been criticized for having conflicts of interest. Pharmacy benefit managers run drug formularies. However, since pharmacy benefit managers negotiate discounts with specific drug firms, pharmacy benefit managers have an incentive to put those drugs on drug formularies. These types of arrangements have drawn the attention of Preet Bharara, the high-profile United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. In 2015, Bharara settled a charge against Express Scripts for $45 million. The settlement came after an Express Scripts unit participated in a kickback scheme involving Novartis under the False Claims Act and the Anti-Kickback Statute.
In fairness to pharmacy benefit managers, there may be other factors driving increased prescription prices. Recently, former Democratic presidential candidate and current U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission alleging collusion among pharmaceutical companies in regards to insulin prices. Insulin is a generic drug, and generic are cheaper than so-called brand-name drugs. However, the increase in insulin prices is far from the sole example of drastic increases in generic drugs.
In 2015, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) released a report on prescription drug prices in workers’ compensation. On page 36 of this report, NCCI pointed out that four of the 10 drugs most responsible for the increase in drug prices were generics. In 2014, the price of generic Oxycodone-Acetaminophen rose 35 percent, Oxycodone’s price rose 60 percent, the price of generic muscle relaxer Baclofen rose 86 percent, and the price of generic Morphine Sulfate ER rose by 25 percent.
There is strong evidence that pharmacy benefit managers do little to control prescription drug prices. There is also strong evidence that pharmacy benefit managers benefit from increases in drug prices. If advocates of workers’ compensation reform want to expand the use of drug formularies, they need to explain to policy makers how the pluses of pharmacy benefit managers outweigh the myriad problems related to pharmacy benefit managers.