Trends That Matter

Trends That Matter for MCO’s Role in COVID Vaccine Rollout

January 14, 2021

States and the federal government recently began rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine to health care workers across the country. Health plans, particularly those that serve high-risk individuals, may be ideally situated to coordinate care and update members on vaccination opportunities, experts tell AIS Health.

The FDA on Dec. 11 authorized emergency use of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech in individuals age 16 and older. Then the agency on Dec. 18 authorized Moderna’s vaccine for emergency use in people 18 years or older.

Health care workers and nursing home residents have been designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the first group (phase 1a) to receive the vaccine.

States and the federal government recently began rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine to health care workers across the country. Health plans, particularly those that serve high-risk individuals, may be ideally situated to coordinate care and update members on vaccination opportunities, experts tell AIS Health.

The FDA on Dec. 11 authorized emergency use of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech in individuals age 16 and older. Then the agency on Dec. 18 authorized Moderna’s vaccine for emergency use in people 18 years or older.

Health care workers and nursing home residents have been designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the first group (phase 1a) to receive the vaccine.

“I think the paradigm of changing tires on a moving bus applies to this venture,” remarks Margaret Murray, CEO of the Association for Community Affiliated Plans (ACAP). “We certainly support the idea of getting the vaccine to front-line health care workers and the very most vulnerable populations, such as nursing home residents, first. So CDC is off to a good start.”

But ACAP, which is composed of 77 not-for-profit safety net health plans covering Medicaid, marketplace and MA enrollees, is concerned about other vulnerable seniors — such as those who are very frail or homebound and likely dual eligible — who are not part of that first round. “We need to think about them in the next wave,” Murray tells AIS Health via email. “We also need to consider how most equitably to distribute the vaccine.”

In a preliminary analysis — or snapshot — of fee-for-service Medicare claims and Medicare Advantage encounter data from Jan. 1 to Sept. 12, 2020, CMS reported 1.19 million COVID-19 cases and 332,672 related hospitalizations among all 62.3 million beneficiaries. That’s a rate of 517 hospitalizations per 100,000 lives. The data puts into stark clarity what is already suspected about the virus: those at the highest risk of developing severe complications are older, lower income, have preexisting conditions and (with the exception of Asian beneficiaries) are more likely to be racial minorities.

Trends That Matter for COVID Vaccine Distribution

December 31, 2020

As details continue to emerge about the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and how they will be administered, the role that payers will play in the process is becoming clearer, AIS Health reported.

It’s imperative for health plans to do two key things at the same time, according to Katherine Dallow, M.D., the vice president of clinical programs and strategy at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Payers need to help the entities that will be distributing the vaccine to identify the individuals who should be first in line to be vaccinated, and they need to use their resources to help educate the community.

As details continue to emerge about the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and how they will be administered, the role that payers will play in the process is becoming clearer, AIS Health reported.

It’s imperative for health plans to do two key things at the same time, according to Katherine Dallow, M.D., the vice president of clinical programs and strategy at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Payers need to help the entities that will be distributing the vaccine to identify the individuals who should be first in line to be vaccinated, and they need to use their resources to help educate the community.

“We might be able to put a puzzle together that an individual provider or group may not have,” she said during a Nov. 18 National Institute for Health Care Management (NICHM) Foundation webinar. “Data from many sources should be used to ensure those who are most vulnerable are ID’d per federal and state guidelines. We can see where folks have seen three different doctors, used telehealth and gone to urgent care.”

In addition, health plans are more likely than providers to have better data about whether individuals have received each of their vaccine doses. That’s because states may expand the scope of the type of providers that can administer vaccines in an effort to broaden access.

While multiple vaccines appear ready to come to market, health plans do have some concerns. According to a recent Avalere Health survey of 39 U.S. health plans and one PBM, collectively representing about 48 million covered lives, the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics is the top COVID-19 concern for more than 47% of health plans.

Trends That Matter: Centene’s ACA Expansion

December 17, 2020

Centene Corp., which has come to dominate the Affordable Care Act exchange market by continuing to expand even when other carriers pulled back, is facing more competition now that the market has stabilized and insurer participation has increased, AIS Health reported.

Given that dynamic, Citi analyst Ralph Giacobbe advised investors recently that he was placing a “negative catalyst watch” on Centene due to the new competitive pressures it’s facing. Centene, he observed, “was displaced as the lowest priced plan in a number of markets,” and so the insurer “will have to rely on retention and new market entry to offset competitive pressures, which could prove challenging and may stunt growth relative to expectations.”

Centene Corp., which has come to dominate the Affordable Care Act exchange market by continuing to expand even when other carriers pulled back, is facing more competition now that the market has stabilized and insurer participation has increased, AIS Health reported.

Given that dynamic, Citi analyst Ralph Giacobbe advised investors recently that he was placing a “negative catalyst watch” on Centene due to the new competitive pressures it’s facing. Centene, he observed, “was displaced as the lowest priced plan in a number of markets,” and so the insurer “will have to rely on retention and new market entry to offset competitive pressures, which could prove challenging and may stunt growth relative to expectations.”

SVB Leerink analyst Stephen Tanal, however, takes a more optimistic view. “I’m pretty comfortable saying Centene’s likely to grow their overall HIX [health insurance exchange] earnings, because they’re going to be in so many more places with higher premiums,” he tells AIS Health.

According to Tanal’s analysis, Centene is increasing its county-level, member-weighted bronze plan premium by about 4% and raising premiums across all metal levels by 4% to 6%. Centene is also expanding its geographic footprint next year, a move that Tanal estimates will put the insurer in 61% more counties than it covered in 2020.

But Tanal did notes that the exchanges next year will feature “more competition in the form of fewer monopoly markets and a larger number of local market competitors.”

“It is definitely more competitive,” Kathy Hempstead, senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, says of the 2021 ACA exchange market. “There’s more participants and it’s not just the Medicaid MCOs spreading out into more places.”

Trends That Matter for Growth Hormone Deficiency Treatments

December 3, 2020

When the FDA approved Novo Nordisk, Inc.’s Sogroya (somapacitan-beco) for the replacement of growth hormone in adults with growth hormone deficiency on Aug. 28, it became the only long-acting agent on the market, AIS Health reported.

There are seven short-acting growth hormones currently available to treat adults with growth hormone deficiency, all of them branded forms of somatropin. Differences among the products, all of which are self-administered, include the strengths available and the type of device to deliver the treatment. But all of them must be administered daily. Sogroya, which also is self-administered, is the only FDA-approved product with weekly dosing.

When the FDA approved Novo Nordisk, Inc.’s Sogroya (somapacitan-beco) for the replacement of growth hormone in adults with growth hormone deficiency on Aug. 28, it became the only long-acting agent on the market, AIS Health reported.

There are seven short-acting growth hormones currently available to treat adults with growth hormone deficiency, all of them branded forms of somatropin. Differences among the products, all of which are self-administered, include the strengths available and the type of device to deliver the treatment. But all of them must be administered daily. Sogroya, which also is self-administered, is the only FDA-approved product with weekly dosing.

Mesfin Tegenu, R.Ph., president of PerformRx, LLC, points out that Sogroya “is a human growth hormone (hGH) analog — an hGH with an added albumin-binding moiety. Up until this point, all hGH products have been a recombinant product, identical copies of hGH (rhGH). The half-life of somapacitan is measured in days (two to three days) while the half-life of rhGH (somatropin) is measured in hours (approximately two-and-a-half hours). The extended half-life of somapacitan allows less frequent (weekly) dosing.”

He says that payers typically have prior authorization on somatropin, with “controls including diagnostic and lab values as prerequisites.” A prescription from an endocrinologist is also a “common practice.”
“Somapacitan is likely to be managed similar to all the other rhGH class of drugs,” Tegenu says, adding that “it is reasonable to classify it as a second-line or nonpreferred agent whose use is allowed only after a trial and failure of or other medical reason for not using a preferred daily rhGH.”

The graphic below show how treatments for growth hormone deficiency are covered among commercial health plans, health exchange programs, Medicare and Medicaid programs under the pharmacy benefit.

Trends That Matter for Employer Health Benefits

November 19, 2020

Several recent surveys on employer-sponsored health insurance have found that plan sponsors are following three major trends: expanding virtual care and telehealth benefits, narrowing provider networks and emphasizing centers of excellence in their benefit designs, AIS Health reported.

According to the 2020 edition of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF) Employer Health Benefits Survey, this year’s annual premium growth (4% for individuals and families) outstripped both wage growth (3.4%) and inflation (2.1%).

Several recent surveys on employer-sponsored health insurance have found that plan sponsors are following three major trends: expanding virtual care and telehealth benefits, narrowing provider networks and emphasizing centers of excellence in their benefit designs, AIS Health reported.

According to the 2020 edition of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF) Employer Health Benefits Survey, this year’s annual premium growth (4% for individuals and families) outstripped both wage growth (3.4%) and inflation (2.1%).

Other surveys project similar results in 2021, but caution that the pandemic saddles employers with unprecedented risk and uncertainty when setting premiums. The main cause of that uncertainty is utilization. Health insurers reported a dramatic fall in claims during the second quarter of 2020, but indications are that utilization begun to return to somewhat normal levels in the third quarter.

“There’s a lot of chatter specifically about [Affordable Care Act] marketplace insurers and about how they are experiencing fewer claims than expected,” says James Gelfand, senior vice president for the ERISA Industry Committee. “That’s not what I’m hearing from member companies. They feel like they’re under the same dynamic that they’ve been under for a decade: costs are going up, and the things they’re doing to try and save money have had a very mediocre effect.”

That tension has led to the emerging trend of narrower networks. Lowering costs and reducing unnecessary utilization is a key goal of narrowing provider networks, along with emphasizing quality and return on investment.

Concerns about COVID-19 exposure have caused a boom in virtual care and telehealth utilization, as patients have avoided in-person clinical visits. Hodgson says that plan sponsors and insurers need to determine how virtual visits will fit into benefit designs going forward.

Trends That Matter for Major PBMs’ 2021 Formulary

November 5, 2020

CVS Health Corp.’s Caremark will exclude 57 medications from its 2021 formulary and add six back. Meanwhile, UnitedHealth Group’s OptumRx subsidiary will exclude 19 medications and products while adding back five and implementing restrictions on others, AIS Health reported.

Still, only a handful of products excluded by either PBM are likely to impact many members adversely, says Marc Guieb, a pharmacist and consultant with Milliman Inc. That also applies to the exclusions announced earlier by Cigna Corp.-owned PBM Express Scripts, he adds.

Guieb observes that brand-name albuterol inhalers are seeing exclusions in 2021 from multiple PBMs, and that’s the change that will affect the most members. “That’s a big one this year,” he says. “One of the PBMs’ new strategies is, they’re completely excluding all the brands of albuterol inhalers, and they’re just going with the generic.”

CVS Health Corp.’s Caremark will exclude 57 medications from its 2021 formulary and add six back. Meanwhile, UnitedHealth Group’s OptumRx subsidiary will exclude 19 medications and products while adding back five and implementing restrictions on others, AIS Health reported.

Still, only a handful of products excluded by either PBM are likely to impact many members adversely, says Marc Guieb, a pharmacist and consultant with Milliman Inc. That also applies to the exclusions announced earlier by Cigna Corp.-owned PBM Express Scripts, he adds.

Guieb observes that brand-name albuterol inhalers are seeing exclusions in 2021 from multiple PBMs, and that’s the change that will affect the most members. “That’s a big one this year,” he says. “One of the PBMs’ new strategies is, they’re completely excluding all the brands of albuterol inhalers, and they’re just going with the generic.”

Meanwhile, “the change that will actually cause the most widespread disruption and confusion will be diabetics switching to entirely new blood glucose monitoring systems, which is a hassle,” Guieb says.

PBMs that decide to prefer one specialty drug over another also can cause significant member disruption, Guieb adds, pointing to potential issues involving Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp.’s biologic Cosentyx (secukinumab), which was excluded from Express Scripts’ 2021 formulary in favor of Eli Lilly and Co.’s Taltz (ixekizumab).

Overall, “I will say that for a lot of these annual formulary changes, they’re definitely a step in the right direction, although it may not be a big enough step in the right direction,” Guieb adds.

For 2021, OptumRx is changing up its multiple sclerosis coverage, adding Biogen’s Tecfidera (dimethyl fumarate) to its excluded list and preferring bioequivalent Bafiertam, made by Banner Life Sciences. Biogen’s Vumerity (diroximel fumarate) remains excluded.

Graphics below list medications that will be excluded by two or three major PBMs and their current market access among commercial formularies under the pharmacy benefit.