March 29, 2017
When I first started becoming aware of how sleazy, parasitic and corrupt the U.S. economy was, I only had expertise in one industry, financial services. Coming to grips with the blatant criminality of the TBTF Wall Street banks and their enablers at the Federal Reserve and throughout the federal government, I thought this was the main issue that needed to be confronted. What I’ve learned in the years since is pretty much every industry in America is corrupt to the core, more focused on sucking money away from helpless citizens via rent-seeking schemes versus actually producing a product and adding value. Unfortunately, the healthcare industry is no exception.
Today’s post zeros in on a particular slice of that industry. A group of companies known as Pharmacy Benefit Managers, or PBMs. Companies that seem to extract far more from the public than they give back. It’s a convoluted sector that is difficult to get your head around, which is why we should be thankful that David Dayen wrote an excellent piece on the topic recently. What follows are merely excerpts from his lengthy and highly informative piece, The Hidden Monopolies That Raise Drug Prices. I strongly suggest you read the entire thing.
Below are a few highlights from the piece published in The American Prospect:
Like any retail outlet, Frankil purchases inventory from a wholesale distributor and sells it to customers at a small markup. But unlike butchers or hardware store owners, pharmacists have no idea how much money they’ll make on a sale until the moment they sell it. That’s because the customer’s co-pay doesn’t cover the cost of the drug. Instead, a byzantine reimbursement process determines Frankil’s fee.
“I get a prescription, type in the data, click send, and I’m told I’m getting a dollar or two,” Frankil says. The system resembles the pull of a slot machine: Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. “Pharmacies sell prescriptions at significant losses,” he adds. “So what do I do? Fill the prescription and lose money, or don’t fill it and lose customers? These decisions happen every single day.”
Frankil’s troubles cannot be traced back to insurers or drug companies, the usual suspects that most people deem responsible for raising costs in the health-care system. He blames a collection of powerful corporations known as pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs. If you have drug coverage as part of your health plan, you are likely to carry a card with the name of a PBM on it. These middlemen manage prescription drug benefits for health plans, contracting with drug manufacturers and pharmacies in a multi-sided market. Over the past 30 years, PBMs have evolved from paper-pushers to significant controllers of the drug pricing system, a black box understood by almost no one. Lack of transparency, unjustifiable fees, and massive market consolidations have made PBMs among the most profitable corporations you’ve never heard about.
Americans pay the highest health-care prices in the world, including the highest for drugs, medical devices, and other health-care services and products. Our fragmented system produces many opportunities for excessive charges. But one lesser-known reason for those high prices is the stranglehold that a few giant intermediaries have secured over distribution. The antitrust laws are supposed to provide protection against just this kind of concentrated economic power. But in one area after another in today’s economy, federal antitrust authorities and the courts have failed to intervene. In this case, PBMs are sucking money out of the health-care system—and our wallets—with hardly any public awareness of what they are doing.
Even some Republicans criticize PBMs for pursuing profit at the public’s expense. “They show no interest in playing fair, no interest in the end user,” says Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, one of the industry’s loudest critics. “They act as monopolistic terrorists on this market.” Collins and a bipartisan group in Congress want to rein in the PBM industry, setting up a titanic battle between competing corporate interests. The question is whether President Donald Trump will join that effort to fulfill his frequent promises to bring down drug prices.
Here’s how it works…
In the case of PBMs, their desire for larger patient networks created incentives for their own consolidation, promoting their market dominance as a means to attract customers. Today’s “big three” PBMs—Express Scripts, CVS Caremark, and OptumRx, a division of large insurer UnitedHealth Group—control between 75 percent and 80 percent of the market, which translates into 180 million prescription drug customers. All three companies are listed in the top 22 of the Fortune 500, and as of 2013, a JPMorgan analyst estimated total PBM revenues at more than $250 billion.
The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, the industry’s lobbying group, claims that PBMs will save health plans $654 billion over the next decade. But we do know that PBMs haven’t exactly arrested skyrocketing drug prices. According to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, between 1987 and 2014, expenditures on prescription drugs have jumped 1,100 percent. Numerous factors can explain that—increased volume of medications, more usage of brand-name drugs, price-gouging by drug companies. But PBM profit margins have been growing as well. For example, according to one report, Express Scripts’ adjusted profit per prescription has increased 500 percent since 2003, and earnings per adjusted claim for the nation’s largest PBM went from $3.87 in 2012 to $5.16 in 2016. That translates into billions of dollars skimmed into Express Scripts’ coffers, coming not out of the pockets of big drug companies or insurers, but of the remaining independent retail druggists—and consumers.
Why haven’t PBMs fulfilled their promise as a cost inhibitor? The