Tag Archives: drug costs

Specialty Drugs Mean Specialty Prices

If you have MS, you’ve probably used a specialty drug. My first was Avonex, which I began to use about 1998. Several others followed.
There’s no formal definition of a specialty drug, but these therapies have several things in common. First, they’re expensive. According to the vice president in charge of specialty drugs at CVS Pharmacy, the average monthly cost is $3,000. A CVS website article says that’s about 10 times the cost of a non-specialty medication. Many specialty drugs are hard to administer, requiring an injection or infusion. And it may require special handling. My Avonex, for example, had to be shipped with dry ice to keep it cool.
So, I’m not surprised that the cost of specialty drugs is so much higher than your average prescription med. What really does bother me, however, is how fast the cost of these specialty drugs has been climbing.

Let’s look at the numbers

A few weeks ago, AARP released a lengthy report that studied 101 specialty drugs. Here are the headlines:
  • The price of the most widely used specialty prescription drugs increased substantially more than the general inflation rate in every year from 2006 to 2015.
  • From 2014 to 2015, specialty drugs had their highest annual price increase in a decade: an average hike of 9.6 percent. Inflation, on the other hand, increased by only 0.1 percent.
  • Prices for 29 chronic-use specialty drugs that have been on the market since the beginning of the study (from January 2006 to December 2015) increased cumulatively by an average of 177.3 percent. In contrast, general inflation increased by only 19.4 percent during the same period.

MS drugs are best-sellers

Multiple sclerosis drugs made up 12 of the 101 specialty drugs studied. Their average price rose 10.8 percent between 2015 and 2016, a little higher than the group average. Seven of those dozen MS drugs made the study’s list of 30 best-selling specialty drugs. (You can see the full list on page 30 of the report.)

RANK BY SALES DRUG DOSE DAILY COST 2015-16 HIKE (%)
6 Copaxone 20mg $201 7.6
7 Tecfidera 240mg $194 10.8
11 Copaxone 40mg $179 7.0
16 Avonex Auto-inject $198 15.2
17 Avonex Pre-filled $200 16.2
21 Rebif 44mcg $207 10.8
27 Betaseron 0.3mg $202 11.1

The drug that jumps out at me from this list is Avonex. Why should the price of a drug that’s been in use for nearly 20 years jump 15-16 percent in a year? Copaxone and Tecfidera both lead Avonex in sales, yet their price hikes were lower. Color me confused.

What’s the solution?

Is there a way to limit these price increases? In the CVS article I mentioned earlier, Dr. Alan Lotvin makes several suggestions, most of which don’t work for me.

Lotvin: “… Prior authorization and step therapy can be highly effective in controlling costs.”

Me: Step therapy means reducing costs by prescribing older, possibly less-effective drugs first rather than aggressively attacking MS with newer, more potent drugs. Some insurance companies insist patients follow this path, but it’s not the way that I want my MS treated.

Lotvin: “Another approach is the use of tiered formularies that require higher patient cost-sharing for more expensive therapies.”

Me: Yes, they do. And this is why many MS patients can’t afford to pay for the therapy that could be the most effective for them (though there are drug company programs that help some patients pay for these drugs).

Lotvin: “Ensuring that the drugs are administered at the lowest-cost site of care is also important — in most instances the hospital outpatient center is the highest-cost site of drug administration, while patients’ homes and doctors’ offices are typically the lowest.”

Me: Here, we agree.

The AARP study concludes:

“If recent trends in specialty drug prices and related price increases continue, it will almost undoubtedly become more difficult for patients to access and afford necessary specialty medications. The pricing patterns (price levels and price increases) for specialty drugs will lead to serious problems with respect to access and affordability issues in the future.”

Since access and affordability are already a problem, it seems to me that the future is now.

Yet, AARP offers no solutions, ending its report this way:

“Policy makers interested in reducing the impact of prescription drug prices should focus on options that drive significant innovation while also protecting the health and financial security of consumers and taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid.”

Well, yeah. But how do we find those options? The FDA has now approved generics for Copaxone 20mg and 40mg. That’s not an innovation, but, hopefully, it will help stick a pin in at least one specialty price balloon.

(This post first appeared as my column on http://www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com)

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Have You Been Switched from Generic to Brand Name?

 

Insurance companies want people to use generics, rather than the more expensive brand-name drugs, right?

Maybe not. Because, at least in some cases, they’re doing just the opposite. Some patients are being forced to use brand-name drugs even when those drugs have generic equivalents. It happened to my wife last week. Not surprisingly, that means that some of us with MS could wind up having to dig deeper into our pockets to pay for some therapies.

The New York Times recently published a long story about this relatively recent, and not widely known, practice. It points a finger at both insurance companies and drug manufacturers.

Here’s what’s happening

The Times story reports that some drug manufacturers are trying to fight competition from generic versions of their products by negotiating deals with insurers and pharmacy benefit managers. (Pharmacy benefit managers are companies such as CVS Caremark and Humana that actually run the drug plans provided by Medicare and private insurance companies.)

The deals require the drug plans to stop covering some generics and instead approve only their brand-name equivalents. In exchange, the drug companies sell the brand-names to the drug plans at a discount. But, the Times reports, the discount isn’t passed along to patients. The insurers or the drug plans pocket it and patients wind up paying more for these drugs.

The impact on MS drugs

This practice also is reported to be happening with some biosimilar products that compete with the new, expensive biologic drugs, just as generics compete with brand names. (A biosimilar is a product that is almost identical to an FDA-approved biologic drug. It’s supposed to have no significant differences in terms of safety and effectiveness, and there are only small differences in its components.)

A drug called Glatopa is a biosimilar for the daily MS injectable drug Copaxone. Two years ago, Glatopa’s manufacturer predicted that Glatopa would have a wholesale list price of about $63,000 a year. That’s about 15-18% lower than the list price for once-a-day Copaxone.

According to the Times, in December, CVS Caremark, one of the largest drug benefit managers, sent a memo to pharmacies telling them that some of its Medicare drug plans would cover only brand-name versions of 12 drugs. No more coverage for their generic versions. Copaxone was one of those 12.

Out-of-pocket costs are impacted by deductibles

A spokeswoman for CVS Caremark told the newspaper that consumers never pay more for a drug when Caremark favors a brand name over a generic. But it’s not simply a case of the cost of each prescription.

According to the story, 29% of Americans with employer-provided health insurance have a high-deductible plan. They would still be hit with higher out-of-pocket drug costs if they were forced to use generic drugs because, until their deductible is met, they’re often required to pick up the full price of brand-name medications. On the other hand, they’re charged only a small percentage of the price of generics before meeting the deductible.

Also, many plans pay for a larger percent of the cost of a generic drug than they pay for its brand name.

The bottom line

Pennsylvania pharmacist Robert Frankil, quoted by the Times, said, “There’s only one reason why they’re requiring you to use a more expensive product. Because somewhere down the road, somebody is earning more money.”

Frankly, I don’t know what we patients can do about all this. But I thought you’d want to know about it.

(A version of this post first appeared as my column in http://www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com).

Getting Help Paying for Your MS Drugs

With the recent approval of the multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus, I’ve again heard the plea “but how can I afford it?” Ocrevus carries a price tag of about $65,000 a year. That’s not high compared to some other MS drugs, but it can still mean a higher co-pay than some patients with insurance can afford. And it can appear to be totally unaffordable for those without coverage. Unless you know how to get help with those drug costs.

About six months ago I wrote about the programs that various drug companies and foundations have to assist MS patients in paying for their drug. With lots of folks looking for that help I thought it would be a good idea to review some of what’s out there.

Payment help from MS drug manufacturers

In the U.S., many drug companies have programs to provide their high-costing MS drugs to patients at a deep discount or, in some cases, for free. For Ocrevus, drug manufacturer Genentech has a number of options. For other MS drugs, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has an excellent, drug by drug, list of these programs on its website. I recommend checking it as a first stop in your search for help.

But there are rules regulating this practice in the U.S. and they don’t make a lot of sense from a patient’s viewpoint. Here’s how they work. If you have prescription drug insurance, either through your employer or as an individual, a drug company is allowed to reduce the amount of your co-pay for their drug.  When I was still working full-time, I was prescribed the drug Ampyra. At that time the average wholesale price for a 90-day supply of Ampyra was about $1,000 a month.  My insurance covered about 50% of that, so I was left with an unaffordable co-pay of about $500 a month for a drug that was really helping me walk. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of Acorda’s patient assistance program to limit my co-pay to no more than $40 a month, and I was able to continue on that drug.

Then I retired and moved from my employer’s drug insurance plan to Medicare Part D (the section of Medicare that pays for prescription drugs).  But, under the Medicare rules, drug companies aren’t allowed to pay-down the co-pay, as they do with private insurance. They must either provide the drug totally free of charge to a patient or they can’t provide any assistance at all.  And, to receive that no-cost benefit the patient’s income must be under a certain limit. My retirement income was too high to get the drug for free, but I still couldn’t afford the big jump from a $40 co-pay to $500 a month, so I had to go off the drug.

But, there’s another way …

Help from foundations

A foundation is the good place to turn when you have private insurance or Medicare, you’re still stuck with a high co-pay and the drug company is unable to help. It takes patience and good timing to obtain help from these non-profits, but it can be worth the effort. If you qualify for the help (there’s still an income ceiling but it’s usually fairly high), a foundation will approve a monetary grant for you. The grant will cover your co-pays and be paid directly to the pharmacy that’s providing your drugs for a specific amount of time, usually a year.

At one time I was receiving a grant of $6,000 a year from a foundation which covered all of my co-pays for Aubagio for that year…a significant out-of-pocket savings. Some of these foundations limit their grants to people on Medicare, while others also include patients with private insurance. A list of some foundations that will pay for MS drugs can be found at the bottom of the National MS Society webpage that I mentioned earlier.

You’ll need patience and good timing to travel this route. The foundations help patients with many different diseases and they can quickly run out of money for a specific disease until new donations are received. The problem is, the foundations don’t announce when their coffers are replenished. So, you need to check their websites, or call them, as frequently as possible to see if they have new money, and then apply quickly when they do.