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

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now and where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]