Industry Trends

Radar On Market Access: Evernorth Drug Trend Report Highlights Pandemic’s Impact on Utilization

April 13, 2021

In the 2020 Drug Trend Report recently released by Evernorth, the Cigna Corp. division added yet another chapter to the growing volume of data detailing the profound effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on health care, AIS health reported.

On the one hand, the massive amount of deferred routine and elective health care utilization had a dampening effect on the number of new medication users that Evernorth — which houses the PBM Express Scripts — recorded in 2020. New users of asthma/COPD medications dropped the most, by 7.1% year over year, likely reflecting the avoidance of clinical settings among a group that is at particular risk of contracting severe COVID-19.

In the 2020 Drug Trend Report recently released by Evernorth, the Cigna Corp. division added yet another chapter to the growing volume of data detailing the profound effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on health care, AIS health reported.

On the one hand, the massive amount of deferred routine and elective health care utilization had a dampening effect on the number of new medication users that Evernorth — which houses the PBM Express Scripts — recorded in 2020. New users of asthma/COPD medications dropped the most, by 7.1% year over year, likely reflecting the avoidance of clinical settings among a group that is at particular risk of contracting severe COVID-19.

Yet for commercial plans managed by Evernorth, the overall drug utilization trend increased by 3.1%, compared with just 1.4% in 2019.

“We saw higher utilization of prescription drugs to treat mental health issues associated with the pandemic — anxiety, insomnia, and depression,” says Evernorth Chief Innovation Officer Glen Stettin, M.D. “Among people with previously diagnosed and common chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, many of which are risk factors for hospitalization and death from COVID-19, we also saw an increase in utilization. This utilization was driven by higher medication adherence, itself a result of more people choosing to fill their medication for 90 day vs. 30 day supplies, and the convenience and safety of having their medication delivered to their homes.”

The overall use of diabetes drugs, for example, increased by 7.4%, while utilization of asthma/COPD medications and anticoagulants each ticked up by 6.6%. To respond to the rising demand, Evernorth said it ordered significantly more albuterol.

Similarly, “when we saw spikes in prescriptions for treating COVID-19 inappropriately with hydroxychloroquine, we worked to protect the supply for people who truly needed it to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus,” the report said.

Evernorth’s report also included statistics that are typical of drug trend reports in more normal years. The Cigna division reported 4% total trend across its commercial plans, 3% trend in Medicare, 1.4% in Medicaid and 5.5% in health insurance exchange plans.

“Adverse selection likely played a small part in driving higher trend for health exchange plans,” the report suggested. “Of the top five classes, four are driven primarily by specialty medications, and the difference in prevalence rates among these classes compared to commercial plans is very small.”

Trends That Matter for Partial Orphan Drugs

April 8, 2021

A new study published in Health Affairs found that spending in the orphan drug category is overwhelmingly concentrated on so-called partial orphan drugs, which have both orphan and nonorphan indications. The study affirms growing concerns across the health care industry that drugmakers are misusing the orphan drug designation and introducing unwarranted cost into the drug channel, AIS Health reported.

The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 covers diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S., plus diseases that affect more than 200,000 people but are so expensive to treat that companies developing and marketing such therapies are not expected to recover their costs. With the designation, the FDA grants drugmakers expanded intellectual property and commercial rights intended to offset these steep costs.

A new study published in Health Affairs found that spending in the orphan drug category is overwhelmingly concentrated on so-called partial orphan drugs, which have both orphan and nonorphan indications. The study affirms growing concerns across the health care industry that drugmakers are misusing the orphan drug designation and introducing unwarranted cost into the drug channel, AIS Health reported.

The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 covers diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S., plus diseases that affect more than 200,000 people but are so expensive to treat that companies developing and marketing such therapies are not expected to recover their costs. With the designation, the FDA grants drugmakers expanded intellectual property and commercial rights intended to offset these steep costs.

The new paper found that 70.7% of spending on drugs designated as orphan drugs went “to nonorphan indications,” and noted that in 2017, 25% of U.S. prescription drug spending was for orphan drugs.

Ge Bai, Ph.D., an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School and Bloomberg School of Public Health, asserts that the orphan drug designation is being abused by drug companies.

“They [orphan drugs] treat a small number of patients, but at the same time they can be used to treat much more common diseases. So they [drugmakers] can still charge a high price and take the tax credit, while at the same time enjoying their impressive commercial success,” Bai says.

Bai adds that drugmakers have become adept at coordinating outside pressure to convince the FDA to expand orphan drug designations beyond their intended purpose.

Radar On Market Access: Interoperability Mandate Could Be an Opportunity for Payers

April 8, 2021

Payers should look at the looming interoperability mandate as a chance to gain a lasting advantage over their competitors, according to two health care information technology (IT) experts.

In a March 26 webinar hosted by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), IBM Vice President Michael Curry of Watson Health and Jeff Rivkin, research director for payer IT strategies at IDC Insights, said payers should do more than meet the minimum interoperability standards, AIS Health reported.

Payers should look at the looming interoperability mandate as a chance to gain a lasting advantage over their competitors, according to two health care information technology (IT) experts.

In a March 26 webinar hosted by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), IBM Vice President Michael Curry of Watson Health and Jeff Rivkin, research director for payer IT strategies at IDC Insights, said payers should do more than meet the minimum interoperability standards, AIS Health reported.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to see a lot of data exchanged. And if you don’t have a fairly robust platform to be able to do that, you’re going to hurt next year, too,” Rivkin said.

Starting July 2021, HHS will require insurers that sell Medicare Advantage, Medicaid and CHIP managed care, and Affordable Care Act exchange plans to launch an application programming interface (API) that will allow patients to access their complete medical and claims history on demand along with a continually updated provider directory. Payers must also make all of their patient and claims data available to other insurers on a payer-to-payer data exchange, which must be in place by January 2022.

Rivkin said insurers should think about the interoperability mandate and the mandate to release pricing information as the same project. Starting on Jan. 1, 2023, health plans must offer members online shopping tools that allow them to see the negotiated rate between their provider and their plan, as well as a personalized estimate of their out-of-pocket cost for 500 of the most shoppable items and services.

“We’re all in the middle of those implementations, but there’s a huge downstream potential for that data,” Curry explained. He says the pandemic-spurred telehealth boom has accelerated changes in consumer expectations.

“The consumer side…has changed a lot in how payers have to think about their relationships with clients,” Curry added. Consumers, he said, now expect accessing health care to be more similar to “buying something on Amazon.”

“Amazon and those like it have raised the bar from the consumerism perspective,” Rivkin said. “Now, you’ve got a significant number of people in the individual market switching because they shop for price. The idea that retail companies have had for years of loyalty and stickiness…is now relevant to health insurance.”

Radar On Market Access: Study Highlights Promise of Bundled Payments in Employer Plans

April 6, 2021

A bundled payment program run by San Francisco-based digital health company Carrum Health resulted in an average per-episode savings of more than $16,000 per orthopedic or surgical procedure, a recent RAND Corp. analysis found.

Counting both procedures reimbursed under the bundled payment program and procedures reimbursed outside the program, per-episode costs for the three procedures studied — spinal fusion, major joint replacement and bariatric surgery — were 10.7% lower overall, on average, than costs for comparable procedures prior to implementation of the program. That added up to a total savings of $4,229 per episode, the study found.

A bundled payment program run by San Francisco-based digital health company Carrum Health resulted in an average per-episode savings of more than $16,000 per orthopedic or surgical procedure, a recent RAND Corp. analysis found.

Counting both procedures reimbursed under the bundled payment program and procedures reimbursed outside the program, per-episode costs for the three procedures studied — spinal fusion, major joint replacement and bariatric surgery — were 10.7% lower overall, on average, than costs for comparable procedures prior to implementation of the program. That added up to a total savings of $4,229 per episode, the study found.

The analysis, published in the March issue of Health Affairs, determined that employer-sponsored health plans captured approximately 85% of the total savings, or $3,582 per episode. Patient cost-sharing payments decreased by $498 per episode, a 27.7% relative decrease.

“What we studied is a program that uses provider-focused financial incentives to give providers plans to operate more efficiently, and then also pairs it with incentives to patients to use high-value providers,” study author Christopher Whaley, a policy researcher in health care at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., tells AIS Health. “What we found is that, following the introduction of this program, overall episode costs fell by quite a bit, and patient cost-sharing actually went to zero for patients who went through the program.”

“[The] bundled prices tend to be quite a bit lower than if we just go through the normal insurance system,” Whaley says, noting that the providers give up higher prices for a guaranteed payment with no insurance road blocks or red tape. Implementation of the direct payments program also was associated with reductions in price variation, the study found.

Although researchers didn’t look at outcomes as thoroughly as they did costs, they did find that some outcomes appeared to be better in patients participating in the bundled payment program, Whaley says: “For example, for bariatric surgery, the national commercial patient readmission rate is, I think, around 4%, and for the patients who went through the program, it was 0.5%. So it looks like readmissions are about 75% lower, which is a huge quality difference.”

Perspectives on Cigna’s MDLive Deal

April 1, 2021

Health insurers have begun to consolidate their position in the telehealth market, as indicated by a recent move by Cigna Corp. to acquire MDLive Inc. Meanwhile, lawmakers are beginning to consider the future of telehealth regulation and payment, AIS Health reported.

Cigna’s Evernorth health services arm announced on Feb. 26 that it had reached an agreement with MDLive to acquire the virtual care provider, according to MDLive’s website. MDLive has been available in-network as a primary care option to all members of Cigna’s commercial plans since January 2020.

Health insurers have begun to consolidate their position in the telehealth market, as indicated by a recent move by Cigna Corp. to acquire MDLive Inc. Meanwhile, lawmakers are beginning to consider the future of telehealth regulation and payment, AIS Health reported.

Cigna’s Evernorth health services arm announced on Feb. 26 that it had reached an agreement with MDLive to acquire the virtual care provider, according to MDLive’s website. MDLive has been available in-network as a primary care option to all members of Cigna’s commercial plans since January 2020.

Ashraf Shehata, national sector leader for health care and life sciences at KPMG, says he expects even more efforts by payers to offer telehealth benefits directly to members.

He adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as an accelerant for telemedicine use. He expects patients will continue to demand telemedicine options even after the pandemic subsides, and that payers will see that demand as an opportunity to narrow the gap between themselves and members.

“We saw that with massive and immediate uptake of the platforms — all the platforms, I should say. Not only did [payers] use their existing platform relationships, but they added new platforms because demand is so high,” Shehata explains.

Shehata adds that robust, internal telemedicine options offer plans an opportunity to exercise leverage in negotiations with provider systems, which have sought to have virtual visits reimbursed at the same rate as traditional visits.

The payment equity question is central to the coming regulatory battle over telemedicine. Payer and plan sponsor lobbying groups will square off against providers in Congress over whether virtual visits should be reimbursed at the same rate as in-person visits. Early in the pandemic, the Trump administration mandated that Medicare must reimburse most telehealth visits at parity with traditional visits.

Also at issue is whether the full menu of services authorized in response to the pandemic will continue to be eligible for Medicare reimbursement. CMS expanded the types of services that could be delivered via telehealth to Medicare beneficiaries, temporarily adding 135 services. Unless Congress acts or the Biden administration issues new rules, the remaining expanded services will expire either at the end of 2021, or when the pandemic public health emergency ends.

In a March 2 hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health, legislators indicated that they are studying both issues.

Radar On Market Access: PBM Regulation, Rebate Rule Are High on Legislative Agenda

April 1, 2021

As a new bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) indicates, Congress is once again looking seriously at tackling drug pricing reform. D.C. insiders say that Democrats could pursue big changes to PBM regulation and Medicare’s ability to negotiate drug prices, AIS Health reported.

Also, Congress could repeal the Trump administration’s so-called “rebate rule,” which would have removed safe-harbor protections under the federal anti-kickback statute for rebates paid by drug manufacturers to PBMs and Medicare Part D plans.

As a new bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) indicates, Congress is once again looking seriously at tackling drug pricing reform. D.C. insiders say that Democrats could pursue big changes to PBM regulation and Medicare’s ability to negotiate drug prices, AIS Health reported.

Also, Congress could repeal the Trump administration’s so-called “rebate rule,” which would have removed safe-harbor protections under the federal anti-kickback statute for rebates paid by drug manufacturers to PBMs and Medicare Part D plans.

Each of H.R. 3 , the new bill from Sanders, and a Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would implement out-of-pocket spending caps for Part D beneficiaries and considerably change how costs are divided up in the catastrophic phase of coverage. In each bill, Medicare would pay less, enrollees would pay nothing, and manufacturers and plan sponsors would pay more in the catastrophic coverage phase. H.R. 3 also would mandate more drug price transparency from manufacturers, allow HHS to negotiate prices for covered drugs, and set the maximum price for a drug at 120% of the average of prices in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Dan Mendelson, founder of Avalere Health, says that lowering drug prices is a popular policy.

“They need to pass something if they do it at all, because next year it’s going to be the run-up to the [2022 midterm] election,” Mendelson observes. “What sits on the other side of that is that these laws are exceedingly difficult to pass. I think there’s…an intensified support for the pharmaceutical industry given their incredible performance in getting these COVID vaccines to market so quickly. And they are a force of nature when it comes to lobbying, so…it’s likely that this stuff will get tempered a lot.”

Further complicating matters is Democrats’ narrow majority in the Senate. A standalone drug reform bill is unlikely to garner support from enough members of the upper chamber.

As the American Rescue Plan was passed through the budget reconciliation process, eliminating the rebate rule is likely to be part of the next package. The rebate rule would be costly but hasn’t actually been implemented, so eliminating it would create a massive savings on paper without the political cost that would come from cutting a real program of similar scale.