A battle is brewing to influence public opinion over the drivers of rising prescription drug benefit costs, cost-containment strategies and the path to meaningful health care reforms.

On one side of this spirited debate to win the hearts and minds of HR and benefit practitioners, among other key stakeholders, is the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) in Alexandria, Va., which claims that pharmacy benefit managers drive up health insurance costs and restrict patient choice.

Just across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., is the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (PCMA), which vehemently defends its PBM membership.

A recent salvo fired by NCPA includes a humorous video, “The Third Wheel,” and website (www.whorunsmydrugplan.com), which cast PBMs as culprits – with the former portraying them as a prescription middleman impediment to patient relations with doctors and pharmacists. NCPA describes spread pricing, rebate pumping and mail order as “cost-inflating PBM practices.” The campaign is a response to PCMA’s “That’s What PBMs Do” advertising from earlier in the year, according to a spokesman for that group.
“Too many plan sponsors, policymakers and patients remain unaware of how large pharmacy benefit managers affect their prescription drug benefit and their health care premiums,” NCPA CEO B. Douglas Hoey said in a recent statement.

“For too long,” he continued, “the PBM industry has benefitted from a lack of oversight and regulation, which has eroded the value of the prescription drug benefit to consumers. We have seen prescription drug costs rise, insurance premiums and patient copayments increase, higher PBM profits and diminished patient choice – while reimbursement to pharmacy small business owners for providing prescription drug services continues to decline. It’s fair to ask: Where’s the money going?”

The NCPA credits its more than 23,000 independent community pharmacies for dispensing lower-cost generic drugs and countering a $290 billion problem of non-adherence with prescribed medications. The community pharmacy model also is described as superior to PBM-owned mail-order pharmacies.

Charles Coté, the PCMA’s assistant vice president of strategic communications, counters that “independent drugstores are trying to maximize their own reimbursements” – noting that PBMs are hired by large and small employers, unions, Medicare Part D, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and state government employee plans to drive down prescription costs.

He says PBMs will save consumers and payers nearly $2 trillion in prescription drug costs over the next decade and took exception to the NCPA’s portrayal of his group’s members. “Employers want even greater use of proven PBM tools to save money and reject the drugstore lobby’s agenda that would force them to pay more for prescription drugs,” according to Coté.

He says that agenda includes stopping employers from promoting home delivery of 90-day prescription drug refills, forcing plans to include drugstores that overcharge and demanding higher payments from the government and employers.

Bruce Shutan, a former EBN managing editor, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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