Pharmacy Management

The Pharmacy Cost Creep

Spending on prescription drugs accounts for a large share of workers’ comp medical costs, but utilization can be controlled.
By: | October 1, 2015 • 8 min read

A 2013 study by the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) showed that pharmacy spend accounts for 19 percent of all workers’ compensation medical costs, and has been slowly creeping up over the past several years.

The biggest perpetrators are increased utilization and inflated prices of compound and specialty medications, continued physician dispensing and rising prices for generic drugs.

Generics’ Supply/Demand Problem

While generic medications still offer cost savings over brand names, their prices have seen an increase amidst manufacturer consolidation and schedule changes for key medications.

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“Generic cost drivers for average wholesale price (AWP) used to remain relatively flat,” said Brian Carpenter, senior vice president of pharmacy product development and clinical management, Healthcare Solutions.

“But all of a sudden in the past year or so, they’re hitting double-digit marks. That’s causing an increase in spending that was unforeseen for all payers.”

Heavy consolidation among manufacturers has created a more limited supply of some generics and pushed out competition, enabling those producers still around to hike up prices.

“There’s been a narrowing of the number of players in the market in terms of the companies that make generic drugs,” said Mark Riley, immediate past president of the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) and the executive vice president and CEO of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association.

“There’s also very little crossover in the products that each manufacturer produces. So before, where you might see 20 companies making a drug, now there’s only one to three making it.”

The problem has been exacerbated by schedule changes to certain hydrocodone/acetamenophin products — an attempt to tamp down opioid overuse. A generic version of Vicodin, for example, was redesignated to the more restrictive classification of a Schedule II drug, from a Schedule III classification.

“Also, along the way the FDA required lower levels of acetaminophen content. Both of those drivers caused about a 22 percent increase in AWP literally overnight,” Carpenter said. “And that’s been repeated quarter over quarter for these products.”

According to Express Scripts’ 2014 “Drug Trend Report,” hydrocodone/acetaminophen products for workers’ compensation saw an increase of 9.6 percent in average cost per prescription. Other painkillers also grew more expensive: Ibuprofen saw a 21.4 percent increase, and oxycodone/acetaminophen drugs jumped by 51 percent.

Specialty and Compound Drugs Drive up Costs

Utilization of compound and specialty medications has also increased, which could be due in part to a decreased supply of some generics, a desire to move away from the documented dangers of opioids and the emergence of new, cutting-edge drugs.

According to the Express Scripts report, “The [cost] trend for specialty medications was 30.4 percent between 2013 and 2014, driven by an increase in both the average cost per prescription (19.8 percent) and utilization (8.8 percent).”

In that time, a new set of oral medications for hepatitis C — proven to be more effective and generally better-tolerated than existing treatments — entered the market at a cost of anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000 for a 12-week regimen.

“Payers have to understand the cost and benefits of using these new, powerful medications versus using a more traditional drug for the specific conditions being treated,” Carpenter said.

The use of compound drugs has also become a significant cost driver, with utilization increasing by five times over the past five years, according to a 2013 study by the California Workers’ Compensation Institute. Express Scripts reported the 2014 cost trend for compounded medications at 45 percent, but called it “moderate compared to the 2013 trend of 125.6 percent.”

Because they contain multiple ingredients, one medication alone can run thousands of dollars, without any proof of safety or efficacy. Unregulated by the FDA, compounds are not subject to double-blind, controlled studies and can vary in composition from batch to batch.

In workers’ comp, many compounds are topical creams meant to treat pain.

“The base ingredient of a topical compound is most typically petroleum jelly, used as both a mixing agent and a lubricant to rub the compounded ingredients on the skin,” said Matt Engels, vice president of network solutions for CorVel.

“Compounding pharmacies often mix the petroleum jelly with non-active agents in order to create a unique base to which they can attach a new, much higher, price.”

Jennifer Kaburick senior vice president, workers’ compensation product management and strategic initiatives, Express Scripts

Jennifer Kaburick
senior vice president, workers’ compensation product management and strategic initiatives, Express Scripts

Compounders can, for example, add things like cayenne pepper to emit heat, or menthol to create a cooling effect — and can set their own price because no National Drug Code (NDC) exists for their particular mixture.

Employers should question the efficacy of the base as well as the other ingredients, which could lead to the elimination of unnecessary and expensive ingredients, Engels said.

Increased compound utilization could be due to the fact that physicians are trying to steer away from prescribing oral painkillers, which have garnered so much attention for their addictive properties. Hospitals also may use compound medications when traditional supplies are not available, an issue exacerbated by the narrowing number of generics manufacturers.

“Compounders have stepped up and supplied the market with drugs that aren’t readily available,” Riley said. “I’ve had hospitals tell me that without compounders, they’d have to shut down their operating rooms.”

High prices and utilization are just one part of the threat to payers. Compounds also pose a challenge because they can more easily escape the scrutiny of bill reviewers. If each ingredient of a compound is listed separately on a bill, and especially if those ingredients are all generics, it may not trigger a red flag.

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There’s also the fact that some physicians mix and dispense compounds from their own offices, or prescribe them through specialty pharmacies outside of an employer’s PBM network, skirting the PBM’s bill review process and any point-of-sale intervention programs.

Those bills, then, typically arrive at the employer’s door in paper form, and paper bills get processed and charged at the fee schedule rate, not at the discounted rate offered by the PBM. Dispensing compounds in this way not only robs an employer of lower rates, but also undercuts its ability to deny a compound prescription and suggest a cheaper and safer form of treatment.

“Once Florida passed drug repackaging legislation in 2013, a number of states followed suit.” — Dan Holden, manager of corporate risk and insurance for Daimler Trucks North America

Employers can better manage their compound spend through prospective management, which requires a statement of medical necessity from the prescriber, or uses a point-of-sale program to flag costly drugs and get consensus from the payer before the prescription is automatically dispensed.

“It all comes back to the ability to hold a contracted provider and any assigned third party accountable for their obligations,” CorVel’s Engels said.

“Employers need 100 percent capture of all pharmacy transactions and transparency on how these transactions were dispensed in order to trigger the applicable obligations.”

Legislative measures can also keep compounding in check, such as restrictions on the number of ingredients that can be used.

The Drug Quality and Security Act, passed in 2013, also established an optional registry for compound pharmacists. Those who register must complete a detailed profile and are subject to biannual audits, which assures prescribers that their facilities are clean and their pharmacists reputable.

“I think like anything else, there are good players and bad players, and people have to be diligent about who they buy [compounds] from,” said Riley of NCPA.

Physician Dispensing

Physician dispensing remains a big cost driver. Not only are repackaged, physician-dispensed drugs more expensive than their counterparts distributed at retail pharmacies (the average cost of a physician-dispensed medication in 2014 was $173.75, compared to $111.68 for a pharmacy-dispensed medication), but the convenience offered to patients also drives up utilization.

According to a 2012 CorVel report, “Focus on Pharmacy Management: Physician Dispensing,” physician distributing of repackaged drugs made up 19 percent of all workers’ comp drug costs. And the practice has grown increasingly more common since 2007.

According to the NCCI’s “Workers’ Compensation Prescription Drug Study: 2013 Update,” physician-dispensed repackaged drug costs as a share of total workers’ comp drug costs have increased 140 percent, from 5 percent in 2007 to 12 percent in 2011.

“Combat” is the key word. Costs can truly be controlled only through proactive management and the use of services like bill and utilization review.

Additionally, physician-dispensed prescriptions’ average cost per claim grew by about 25 percent in 2008, from $24 to $30, and doubled over the next three years. By comparison, prescription cost per claim for drugs dispensed by pharmacies had a steady growth of about 5 percent per year during the same period.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in use of physician dispensing, but there is also a growing sense that there are opportunities to taper it,” said Jennifer Kaburick, senior vice president, workers’ compensation product management and strategic initiatives, Express Scripts.

“Once Florida passed drug repackaging legislation in 2013, a number of states followed suit,” said Dan Holden, manager of corporate risk and insurance for Daimler Trucks North America. That law caps the amount doctors can charge for drugs they dispense to 12.5 percent over the average wholesale price. Other states limit the amount or types of drugs that physicians can dispense, enforce a separate fee schedule for physician-dispensed drugs, or require physicians to price their medications based on the NDC of the original manufacturer.

“I think this will be less of a problem going forward as the other states pass similar legislation,” Holden said.

Containing Costs

While these trends have collided to result in overall high pharmacy costs for workers’ comp payers, the climb may not continue for long. Little can be done about the effects of manufacturer consolidation on generics pricing, but payers can gain control over compound and specialty drug utilization, while regulatory and legislative efforts help to rein in physician dispensing.

“I think these trends have reached their apex, as employers and carriers have chosen to combat the rising costs,” Holden said.

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“The battle is far from over, but I truly believe we are on our way.”

“Combat” is the key word. Costs can truly be controlled only through proactive management and the use of services like bill and utilization review.

“PBMs can also take a stance in the market for fairer drug pricing — especially for costly medications like specialty drugs — which improves access,” said Rochelle Henderson, senior director of research for Express Scripts.

Kaburick and Henderson pointed out that, despite an 11.5 percent increase in average cost per prescription for narcotics in 2014, an 11 percent decrease in utilization among Express Scripts’ clients allowed their overall trend to remain flat.

“In an unmanaged program, these trends will not go away by themselves,” Kaburick said. “But if employers aggressively manage their pharmacy spend, they can keep costs down despite trends in the market.”

_______________________________________________________________

R10-1-15p32-34_4Drivers_inDep.indd

Part I: The Pharmacy Cost Creep

Spending on prescription drugs accounts for a large share of workers’ comp medical costs, but utilization can be controlled.

R10-15-15p30-32_5Cost_inDep.inddPart II: Data Key for Claims Controls

Sophisticated pharmacy data allows workers’ comp payers to spot utilization red flags.

112015_10_indepth_150pxPart III: The PBM Evolution

Pharmacy benefit managers are becoming a greater force in clinical case management, adapting to higher customer expectations.

Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Absence Management

Establishing Balance With Volunteers

It’s good business to allow job-leave for volunteer emergency responders, whether or not state laws apply.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 7 min read

If 2017 had a moniker, it might be “the year of the natural disasters,” thanks to a phenomenal array of catastrophic or severe events— hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, ice storms and floods.

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Combined with smaller-scale fires and other emergencies, these incidents tax the resources of local and state emergency services, often prompting the need to call volunteer emergency responders into action.

But as lean as most organizations are already running, volunteer activities can sometimes cause friction between employees and employers. Handling conflicts the wrong way can potentially lead to legal headaches, harm employee morale and batter a company’s reputation.

State by State Variations

Most employers are aware of the various federal and state leave laws protecting their employees, including family and medical leave, pregnancy leave and military leave. But leave laws that protect the livelihoods of volunteer emergency responders are more likely to fly under the radar of some HR managers and risk managers.

Such laws don’t exist in every state, but more than 20 states do have some type of law in place to protect volunteers including emergency responders, firefighters, disaster workers, medical responders, ambulance drivers or peace officers.

Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management

The laws vary broadly. Nearly all specify that such leave be unpaid, and that employees disclose their volunteer status to employers and provide documentation for each leave. But there is a spectrum of variations in terms of what may trigger an eligible leave. Some, for instance, apply for any emergency that prompts a call from the volunteer’s affiliated responder group. Others may require a government declaration of emergency for the law to be triggered.

While many of the laws do not explicitly require employers to let employees leave work when called to an emergency during a shift, most specify that an employee may be late or even miss work entirely without facing termination or any other adverse employment action.

Some states mandate a maximum number of unpaid leave days that a volunteer can claim. But others may place more significant burdens on employers. In California, for instance, employers with 50 or more employees are required to grant up to 14 days of unpaid leave for training activities in addition to any leave taken to respond to emergency events. For multistate employers, keeping on top of what obligations may apply in each circumstance can be a challenge.

Significant Risks

Large or mid-sized employers may rely on absence management providers to keep them in compliance. For smaller employers though, it may be as simple as looking up a state’s law via Google to find out what’s required. However, checking in with the state department of labor or the company’s attorney may be the best way to get the correct facts.

“I would caution that just because you don’t find something [on the internet], it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said absence management and employment law attorney Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management.

For example, Cardi said, an obscure Texas law provides job-protected leave for volunteer ham radio operators called into service during an emergency.

Cardi said employers should task HR to investigate the laws in each state the company operates in, and to ensure that supervisors are educated about the existence of these laws.

“If a supervisor is told by one of his or her employees, ‘Sorry I’m not coming in today … I’ve been called to volunteer firefighter duty for the [nearby region] fire,’” she said, you want to be sure that the supervisor knows not to take action against the employee, and to contact HR for guidance.

“Training supervisors to be aware of this kind of absence is really important.”

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An employer that does terminate a protected volunteer for responding to an emergency may be ordered to pay back wages and reinstate the employee. In some cases, the employee may also be able to sue for wrongful termination.

And of course, “you don’t want to be the company in the headlines that is getting sued because you fired the volunteer firefighter,” she added.

If an employer bars a volunteer from responding, the worst-case scenario may be a third-party claim. Failure to comply with the law could give rise to a claim along the lines of “‘If you had complied with your statutory obligation to give Jane Doe time to respond, my loved one would not have died,’” explained Philadelphia-based Jonathan Segal, partner at law firm Duane Morris and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute.

“That’s the claim I think is the largest in terms of legal risk.”

Even if no one dies or is seriously injured, he added, “there could still be significant reputational risk if an individual were to go to the media and say, ‘Look, I got called by the fire department and I wasn’t allowed to go.’”

The Right Thing to Do

What employers should be thinking about, Segal said, is that whether or not you have a legal obligation to provide job-protected leave for volunteer responders, “there’s still the question of what are the consequences if you don’t?”

Employee morale should be factored in, he said. The last thing any company wants is for employees to perceive it as insensitive to their interests or the interests of the community at large.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” — Jonathan Segal, partner, Duane Morris; managing principal, Duane Morris Institute

“How is this going to resonate with my employees, with my workforce, how are people going to see this? These are all relevant factors to consider,” he said.

There’s an argument to be made for employers to look at the bigger picture when it comes to any volunteer responders on their payroll, said Segal.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” he said. “Think about the case where’s there’s not a specific state law [for emergency responders] and you say to a volunteer, ‘No, you can’t leave to deal with this fire’ and then people die. You as an employer have potentially played a role, indirectly, because you didn’t allow the first responder or responders to go,” he said.

The bottom line is that “it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s not required by law,” agreed Cardi.

“I feel that companies should have a policy that they’re not going to discipline or discharge someone for absences due to this kind of civic service, subject to verification of course.”

Clear Policy

While most employers do strive to be good corporate citizens, it goes without question that employers need to guard their own interests. It’s not especially likely that volunteer responders will try to take advantage of the unpaid leave allowed them, but of course, it could happen.

That’s why it’s important to have policies that are aligned with state laws. Those policies could include:

  • Notifying the company of any volunteer affiliations either upon hire or as soon they are activated as volunteers.
  • Requiring that employees notify a supervisor as soon as possible if called to an emergency (state requirements vary).
  • Requiring documentation after the event from the head of the entity supervising the volunteer’s activities.

If at some point it becomes excessive – someone has responded to emergencies five times in nine weeks, then it’s time to examine the specifics of the law and have a discussion with the employee about what’s reasonable, said Segal. It may also be time to ask specifics about whether the person is volunteering each time, or are they being called.

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In some cases, the discussion may need to be about finding a middle ground, especially if an employee has taken on an excessively demanding volunteer role.

“We encourage volunteers to pick the style that best fits their schedule,” said Greta Gustafson, a representative of the American Red Cross. “Disaster volunteers can elect to respond to disasters locally, nationally, or even virtually, and each assignment varies in length — from responding overnight to a home fire in your community to deploying across the country for several weeks following a hurricane.

“The Red Cross encourages all volunteers to talk with their employers to determine their availability and to communicate this with their local Red Cross chapter.”

Segal suggests approaching it as an interactive dialogue — borrowing from the ADA. “Employers may need to open a discussion along the lines of ‘I need you here this week because this week we have a deliverable on Friday and you’re critical to that client deliverable,’” he said, but also identify when the employee’s absence would be less critical.

No doubt there will be tough calls. An employer may have its hands full just trying to meet basic customer needs and need all hands on deck.

“That may be a situation where you say, ‘First let me check the law,’” said Segal. If there’s a leave law that applies, “then I’m going to need to comply with it. If there’s not, then you may need to balance competing interests and say, ‘We need you here.’” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]