Matthew’s health care tidbits: How do you tell the price of a drug?

Each time I send out the THCB Reader, our newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB (Sign up here!) I include a brief tidbits section. Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

As the average THCB reader is probably all too well aware I live in Marin County, California and therefore my kids are on amphetamine-based medication for ADHD. This is annoying as all get out because, as a controlled substance, this medication needs to be re-prescribed every month (no automatic refills allowed). In addition no 90 day supplies are allowed, and the kids must have checkups with their prescribing physician every 3 months (which are not cheap).

It’s not just prescribing which is complicated. Supply is an issue too and frequently pharmacies run out. This is furtherly frustrating because if one pharmacy is out it can’t move the Rx to another, even in the same chain like Walgreens or CVS. The new pharmacy requires a whole new prescription. I discovered last year that Alto Pharmacy, a VC backed home delivery pharmacy, will deliver controlled medications. This has saved me 12-24 visits to CVS in the past year.

But with a new year there are new problems. The “allowed” price, i.e. the price my insurer Blue Cross of Massachusetts had agreed with Alto Pharmacy (and other pharmacies) for the specific generic for one of my kids somehow went from $29 a month to $107. That’s the amount I actually pay until we hit our $4,500 family deductible. Incidentally because it’s a medication we still pay $10 a month after we hit the deductible.

Alto kept telling me that the cash price was around $50. But of course if we pay the lower cash price (either there or elsewhere using GoodRx) that doesn’t count against the deductible. So if we hit the deductible we are out the $50 (which works out to roughly $1200 per year for 2 kids). I kept asking Alto what had changed that made the cost go up? They kept not telling me an answer, other than it cost $107. I asked the good people at Health Tech Nerds slack group if they could guess what was going on. Their consensus was that the formulary tier had been changed. “But it’s a generic”, (I foolishly thought).

Finally I called the pharmacy number on BCBS Massachusetts website, and ended up talking to someone at CVS Caremark– their PBM. In the course of the 30 minute call they ran a dummy claim with several other pharmacies. All came back at the $107 number. They then looked up the formulary to see if it had changed. Meanwhile I looked at the formulary on the BCBS Mass website while this was going on. The medication was still tier 1. So why has the cost to me and perhaps to the Blues plan gone up from $29 a month to $107? (Yes that’s more than a factor of 3!)

While she was talking to me the Caremark rep was also able to Slack with several other colleagues–relatively advanced for an old world PBM I thought. Eventually the answer came back. The med was indeed tier one. But until we spent our deductible the med was tier 2. In other words if we were paying for the drug the price is $107. As soon as BCBS Massachusetts starts paying for it the price goes back to $29 (of which they only pay $19) as we have a $10 copay.

Why this has happened is beyond me? Is Caremark or BCBS Massachusetts suggesting another cheaper drug? I haven’t heard from them. Are they trying to discourage patients from getting to their deductibles? My cynical conclusion is that Caremark is trying to increase the revenue for CVS– its corporate pharmacy–which that accounts for 1/3 of all outpatient Rx.

Otherwise this pricing strategy makes no sense to me. Of course this is just another example of a completely opaque process. And that appears typical for American health care.

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