A drug formulary is a term describing a list of drugs that are covered by an insurance plan. In workers’ compensation, formularies are touted as a way to reduce prescription costs and lead to more effective care. Formularies are particularly pushed as a solution for opioid use and abuse for injured employees.
The headline numbers about the reduction of prescription costs look eye popping. One group of pharmacy benefit managers, the companies that manage drug formularies, claimed a 9 percent reduction in prescription costs over the last year. Ohio, which has the largest state-run workers compensation fund in the country, claimed a 16 percent reduction in prescription costs in the first three years after they implemented a drug formulary. Ohio reported 15.7 million fewer doses of opioids in that time period and a 36 percent reduction in opioid costs.
The Rest of the Story about Drug Formularies
Florida workers’ compensation judge David Langham has asked “what is the rest of the story” about drug formularies. If drug formularies are so effective, then why have they only been adopted in a few states for workers’ compensation?
While drug formularies are a relatively recent development in workers’ compensation, they are well established in the larger world of health insurance. Drug formularies have long been criticized for increasing costs in health insurance plans by reducing prescription usage because costs are shifted to insureds, which forces insureds to seek more expensive care, because chronic conditions go untreated. Overall costs are increased. The costs are also shifted onto insureds who have to pick up the costs for more expensive procedures that could have been taken care of through medication. Cost shifting from the employer onto the employee, other forms of insurance and the government is already a serious problem in workers’ compensation. Drug formularies in workers’ compensation could exacerbate the issue of cost-shifting.
Do Drug Formularies add up? Cost = Price * Utilization
When you study drug formularies for any amount of time, you run across the equation that drug costs equal price multiplied by utilization. Proponents of drug formularies tout that they can decrease both the utilization and the price of prescription drugs. Ohio has provided detailed information about the decrease in the utilization of certain drugs like opioids because of formularies. However, the decrease in the utilization in opioids cited by proponents of drug formularies coincides with an overall long-standing decrease in the frequency or number of workers’ compensation claims. Fewer overall claims mean less overall utilization, which could explain some of the cost decrease. A better measure of the effectiveness in drug formularies in controlling costs would be measured by looking at prescription cost per claim. So far, drug formulary proponents have been unable to show that data. Even if drug formulary proponents could show that data, there is still the issue of whether reductions in prescription drug costs lead to increases medical costs by forcing injured employees to seek more expensive care that could have been taken care of by prescriptions.
On the price end of the equation, drug formularies are thought to control costs by having pharmacy benefit managers negotiate bulk discounts on prescription drugs. But pharmacy benefit managers have come under fire with allegations that they actually increase drug prices or at the very least are powerless to stop the increases in drug prices. The issue of drug formularies, pharmacy benefit managers and drug prices is complicated and will be addressed in Part 2 of this series.