How employers can manage the skyrocketing cost of specialty drugs
In the past two decades, the number of specialty medications — which treat rare and complex diseases such as multiple sclerosis, pulmonary arterial hypertension, hepatitis C, HIV, cystic fibrosis, some types of cancer and hemophilia — has grown exponentially. In 1990, there were only 10 specialty drugs on the market. By 2015, that number had increased to 300 medications, and by the end of 2016 there were approximately 700 more specialty drugs in development.
These medications are usually very high cost, with some new biologic medications costing more than $750,000 a year. Why are the costs so high? There are a number of factors, including the facts that distribution networks are limited, these medications are complicated to develop and distribute, and there are few, if any, generic alternatives for these drugs.
See also: 6 ways to mitigate specialty drug costs
The Pew Charitable Trusts found that although only 1% to 2% of Americans use specialty medications, they account for approximately 38% of total drug spending in the U.S.
So, how can employers better gain control over the cost of specialty medications? Because there are hundreds of specialty medications, there’s no single strategy for cost management that can be applied universally. To build an effective cost management strategy, employers need to first analyze employee use of specialty medications. The best strategy will approach specialty medication management by disease class and drug by drug.
However, there are key building blocks of a strategy that will both manage costs and ensure that employees have access to the medications they need. Here are six things employers can do.
Assess benefit plan design structure. Employers should consider how they are incenting employees to spend their benefit dollars appropriately and wisely. A multi-tiered medication formulary where employees pay less out of pocket for generic drugs and lower cost medications and more for costly medications is one approach that’s proven effective. To help employees afford these higher out-of-pocket costs, employers can promote manufacturer copay savings programs, which many drug makers offer.
Think about utilization management. This can include requiring prior authorization for high-cost specialty medications and step therapies (employees must start with lower cost therapies and can move up to more costly ones if those are not effective).
Consider a custom pharmacy network design. By narrowing the network of pharmacies that fill specialty medication prescriptions, employers can negotiate a better unit price. A freestanding specialty pharmacy or a pharmacy benefits manager can provide savings by optimizing discounts for both employers and employees.
Offer second opinion and other support services for rare and complex diseases. A newly diagnosed rare or complex disease patient will see, on average, seven different specialists over the course of eight years before getting a true diagnosis and appropriate treatment path. These programs aim to reduce that burden and ensure success with that treatment once it’s identified. A second opinion from a top specialist in the field provides an expert assessment of the diagnosis and recommendations on the most effective treatment protocol. This not only helps manage costs, it lowers the risk of misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment. Additional case management services can include one-to-one counseling and, when the drug regimen requires, in-home nursing services to help patients better manage their disease and improve outcomes.
Offer site of care choices. Where specialty drugs are administered can have a significant impact on what they cost. Medications administered in an outpatient clinic at a hospital can cost five times as much as those that are injected or infused in a physician’s office or at the patient’s home. Offering services such as home infusion or injection delivered by nurses or incenting patients with lower copays when they receive their medications at their physician’s office can lower overall specialty drug costs.
Educate employees. When an employee or covered family member is diagnosed with a rare or complex condition that will require a higher level of care and the use of specialty medications, employers can connect employees with case managers or similar services that provide education about the condition and the medication, such as how to manage side effects or what alternative medications are available, which can increase employee adherence with the medication regimen.