Federal Trade Commission inquiry could eventually lead to overhaul of prescription drug rebate system

  • Author – Joshua P. Cohen
  • 4min read

In June, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted unanimously (5-0) to examine rising list prices of insulin, but also to probe possible anti-competitive practices by pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) with respect to the use of rebate arrangements. Rebates are payments from drug manufacturers to PBMs in exchange for moving market share towards so-called preferred products on the formulary.

 

The FTC has specifically cited instances in which cheaper generics and biosimilars are excluded from PBM formularies, as this may violate competition and consumer protection laws.

The FTC inquiry into pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) practices could lead to legal action prohibiting certain rebate practices. In turn, this could induce major changes in the U.S. rebate system. Formulary management could become increasingly value- or outcomes-based, rather than simply a function of a financial power play between drug makers and PBMs. Or, rebates could fall by the wayside altogether, to be replaced by a combination of upfront discounts in lieu of rebates and value-based pricing arrangements. Partnering with Lyfegen may be the solution for manufacturers and payers alike, as its platform can put users on the right track towards successful implementation of value-based pricing arrangements.

The FTC has warned of legal action against PBMs if its inquiries find proof of anti-competitive practices. Here, the agency raised the stakes when it included terms like “commercial bribery” in its statements to describe what it perceives as anti-competitive rebates in the insulin market.

The latest FTC inquiries follow a recent investigation by Senators Grassley (R-Iowa) and Wyden (D-Oregon), which blamed rebate schemes for much of what ails the prescription drug market. Furthermore, nearly two years ago, Senator Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and colleagues commissioned the General Accounting Office (GAO) to examine rebates. The GAO report is due out this fall.

PBMs receive rebates from drug manufacturers in exchange for preferred positioning on the formulary, which in turn drives market share. Experts have criticized rebates for the fact that payers often don’t base their decisions to include a drug on comparative clinical- and cost-effectiveness. Rather, decisions are strictly based on financial terms, namely which manufacturer offers a higher rebate payment to the PBM; a financial power play in which PBMs may threaten not to cover certain drugs if they don’t get the rebate they want. This applies to insulin as well as numerous other therapeutic categories.

What’s worse is when rebate traps or walls are involved. Branded manufacturers leverage their position as market leaders by offering financial incentives to PBMs and health insurers in the form of “all or nothing” conditional volume-based rebates, in exchange for (virtually) exclusive positioning on the formulary. This can mean keeping competitors off the formulary entirely, or severely limiting formulary access to a competing drug with drug utilization management tools like step edits. Here, a patient must use a preferred drug and fail on it (a so-called “fail-first” policy) before “stepping up” to a non-preferred drug.

Because the portion of the rebate retained by PBMs is often calculated as a percentage of a drug’s list price, PBMs can have incentives to establish formularies that favor branded drugs with higher list prices and larger rebates over lower priced biosimilars, specialty generics, or even branded competitors. Rival drugs entering the market lack sufficient sales volume to be able to offer the same level of rebates to PBMs that originator firms can provide.

Proof of the establishment of anti-competitive practices could lead to legal action being taken against PBMs. The question then becomes what would replace rebates? Payers may establish an entirely different formulary management system that is more value-based. Surely, it would be a system that’s less contingent on the role of the financial power play between drug makers and PBMs.

In areas such as immunotherapy targeting certain cancers, cell and gene therapy, and rheumatology, there are already a growing number of value-based agreements.

Girisha Fernando, CEO and Founder of Lyfegen, which offers a platform to track value-based agreements with real-world data, said that many outcomes-based deals are kept secret and therefore under the radar, so to speak. Commercial payers generally don’t share publicly what types of value-based deals they have with drug companies to maintain their competitive advantage. Yet, in an interview with Endpoints News Fernando stated that he’s observed at least a 300% increase in value-based agreements over the last five years. The Lyfegen Platform enables more efficient and transparent management of value-based drug pricing contracts by using intelligent algorithms to capture and analyze patient-level drug cost data.

Fallout from the FTC inquiry – should rebates be identified as anti-competitive – may entail further increases in value-based dealmaking.

About the author

Cohen is a health economist with more than 25 years of experience analyzing, publishing, and presenting on drug and diagnostic pricing and reimbursement, as well as healthcare policy reform initiatives. For 21 years, Cohen was an academic at Tufts University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Amsterdam. Currently, and for the past five years, Cohen is an independent healthcare analyst n a variety of research, teaching, speaking, editing, and writing projects.

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