Pharmacy Benefit Managers: Kind of a Mystery to Me

Let’s see if I can make sense of pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), the companies that seem to have a reputation as shady price-increasing middlemen in prescription drugs. This is part of my effort to better understand prescription drug prices and what’s wrong with that market.

First, consider the flow of a medicine from start to end.

The obvious start is that drug manufacturers make the medicine. And then that medicine has to get to pharmacies. Pharmacies do not want to contract with every single drug manufacturer directly, so instead they use wholesalers, who do that contracting for them and buy the drugs from the manufacturers and store them, and then those wholesalers are able to quickly supply all the drugs a pharmacy could want for a small markup. I don’t know the details on whether pharmacies can shop around for the best deal on a drug from different wholesalers or if they just contract with a single one, but, regardless, now the pharmacy has its drugs, and this part of the supply chain seems to work properly.

Next, the patient. They buy the drugs from the pharmacy. If they’re going through insurance, the pharmacy inputs into their computer the medication details and the patient’s insurance information and then out of the black box comes an out-of-pocket price for the patient to pay to obtain the medication and a price for the insurer to pay (and that bill gets sent directly to the insurer). That’s the end of the line for the medicine.

But the tricky part is that final transaction, how the prices are determined in that black box. This is where the mystery and intrigue and confusion come in.

Let’s talk about PBMs.

Originally, the precursors of today’s PBMs were simply companies that helped insurers process medication claims after patients would buy them. I’m not sure exactly how they morphed into today’s version of a PBM, but based on what I’ve been reading, my guess is that it went something like this . . .

Insurers (especially smaller self-insured employers) wanted someone with expertise in all things medications to create a formulary for them–surely a very complicated process–and since these precursor PBMs were already processing all the drug claims anyway, they were an obvious choice to ask to take on the new role of creating and managing formularies.

Next, since these precursor PBMs were now making formularies for several different insurers, they inadvertently had amassed significant power over many patients’ out-of-pocket prescription prices (and, therefore, patients’ prescription choices). So when drug prices started to climb higher, these precursor PBMs wanted to stay competitive and offer formularies with all the best medicines for the cheapest, so they got into the game of negotiating directly with drug manufacturers. And that is probably the point where they became modern-day PBMs. The three PBMs with the largest market share today are Express Scripts, CVS CareMark, and UnitedHealth’s OptumRx

But if the drug manufacturer is selling their drugs to pharmacies via wholesalers, what are PBMs and drug manufacturer negotiating over?

Kickbacks for PBMs to get more patients to buy their medications. That’s really what it boils down to. Although the payments from drug manufacturers to PBMs can take various forms, the simplest one is that the drug manufacturer pays a PBM a nice sum for the PBM to include their drugs on the PBM’s formulary. The PBM then passes some of this money on to the patients by lowering their copay for those drugs.

There are a lot of hidden details in these PBM-drug manufacturer negotiations. It’s an area rife with hidden numbers. The main question is, How much do PBMs actually get paid (including all the different forms of kickbacks) from the drug manufacturers? Nobody knows. There have been government attempts to force them to disclose this, but the laws only require them to report on certain kickbacks, and it’s probably not too difficult for them to look really good by shifting the majority of their kickbacks to different categories that are not reported.

My other question is, How do insurers choose a PBM? This should be a fairly answerable question with the right contacts. Is this a fairly transparent market, where insurers can go to each PBM and ask how much the total cost will be of the drugs their patients will get, plus the fees paid to the PBM? Based on the sheer complexity and number of variables involved, I doubt the PBM selection is easy and transparent. This means PBMs can get away with not only hiding how much they are getting paid by drug manufacturers, but also not passing much of that money on to the patients and insurers. And nobody will ever know truly how much these middlemen are adding to our skyrocketing drug prices.

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