Why Drug Companies’ Medication Coupons Are Bad for the Healthcare System

Have you had the experience where you need a medication, and the brand name actually is cheaper for you because your doctor gives you a coupon for it? It’s great for you, but it’s bad for the healthcare system, and here’s why.

I have written before about the principle that is relevant to this, but it bears repeating: The party making a purchase decision must be the one who also bears the price differential between those options.

To understand why, let’s pretend you have a medium risk of heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years, so your doctor recommends you start a moderate-intensity statin medication. They’re all pretty close to equal in terms of efficacy and side effects, so the best money-saving decision would be to choose the cheapest one, right? Well, if your doctor says, “I’m happy to prescribe any of these for you. Which would you like?” You are the party who now gets to make a purchase decision. So you look at the monthly prices below (these are real prices):

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But then your doctor hands you a pitavastatin $100 off coupon some drug rep from Kowa Pharmaceuticals (the manufacturer) dropped off. You, a rational person, opt for that one since it’s now the cheapest (free)!

Now the monthly cost to the healthcare system for you to be on a statin totals $0.00 (your copay) + $101.36 (what your insurer has to cover) = $101.36. That’s about 20 times more expensive than it should have been!

What just happened here? The party making the purchase decision (you) did not bear the price differential between the options. Your insurer originally set it up so that you would pay more if you chose a more expensive statin, but the coupon interfered with that.

This same situation plays out over and over every day in our healthcare system with medications and with every other health service. It’s why I keep saying that we need to make the party who makes the purchase decision the same party who bears at least some part of the price differential between the options, which leads to a value-sensitive decision. Reference pricing does it, high-deductible insurance plans do it (for services below the deductible, at least), multi-tier prescription programs do it (when they’re not being subverted by manufacturer coupons). But these, collectively, are not influencing nearly enough of the purchase decisions being made in our healthcare system! And we waste money. Even worse, the higher value options are not rewarded with market share, the lower-value options are allowed to persist as is, and the overall value delivered by our healthcare system remains much lower than it could be.

So that’s why medication coupons–and any other thing that interferes with purchasers bearing the price differential between options–are bad.

Why Insurers Are Finally Investing in Primary Care

Image source: eurekafirerescue.org

First off, I apologize for the long delay between blog posts. I’m still here, and I still am obsessed with health policy. I’ve been working on a publication that outlines some of what I’ve figured out lately, and I’d rather people first see it in a publication by me rather than by someone else who came across it on my random blog and ran with it.

Anyway, let’s talk about why insurers are starting to do things differently lately. They’ve started doing pilot projects to see if investing in primary care will save them money by preventing unnecessary tests and services (they predict it will in a big way). They’ve also started investing more in IT to keep track of patients’ health information, again hoping they can use it to find ways to prevent patients from needing preventable tests and services.

Of course this makes sense. If they, as a business, can invest $500,000 in primary care and then save $600,000 by preventing a whole bunch of things down the road that they otherwise would have had to pay for, it’s a great investment! But why haven’t they started trying out these investments in cost-saving prevention until now? Remember that a business is always trying to use the money they’re making and invest it in projects that improve their financial performance. But there are a lot more options of projects to invest in than they have the money to invest. So they are trying to find the projects that seem to offer the greatest reward for the lowest risk. This would lead us to assume that these kinds of projects haven’t had a great reward-risk ratio until now.

I haven’t figured out a great way to organize my thoughts about this, so here they are in a random order. (FYI, one of the items in the list below is going to change, and it explains why insurers are changing their ways, so you better figure out which.)

  • If an insurer wants to invest in prevention, but then the patient switches insurance before the insurer gets to reap the savings, that was basically wasted money. Yeah the patient is healthier as a result, so that’s a small consolation prize, but the analyst who forgot to compare the expected payback period with the average length a patients stay on their insurance will probably still be fired.
  • Trying to pay a primary care physician to do better at keeping patients healthy isn’t an across-the-board money saver. Actually, it probably only saves money for a small portion of patients. But the thing that makes it worth it is that those patients are probably the highest-cost patients, so a ton of money still stands to be saved.
  • Paying a physician more to establish a medical home or hire a care manager or something like that probably involves the insurer paying the whole cost for the physician to do that, otherwise they won’t. And since the physician has the care manager, chances are he/she will use that care manager for all his/her patients who need the service, including patients that are covered by other insurers. So the insurer is now stuck paying for a competitor’s patients to get healthier, saving the competitor money even though the competitor didn’t invest a thing.
  • An insurer won’t be very popular if they add services to only a select group of patients on the exact same coverage plan. Other people will say that’s unfair and demand to receive the same service. This would be annoying, and they’d have to find a way around it so they don’t end up spending all this prevention money on people who won’t end up saving them much in return.
  • People, when buying insurance plans, aren’t really able to compare the coverage offered by different plans. There are so many complexities, all they can really do is look at the price and look at some of the basic coverage provisions, but that’s it. There may be all sorts of limitations that they don’t even know about. Because of this, insurers can get away with offering a high-priced plan with not great coverage and still (through great marketing) convince a lot of people to buy it, so where is the reward in finding ways to lower price by doing cost-saving prevention when you can just add a few exclusions to save money instead and nobody will ever notice when they’re choosing their insurance plan?

I hope you figured out that the last one is changing. With new tools coming out that help people more easily compare the quality of coverage offered by different health plans, including insurance exchanges’ standardized levels of coverage, people will be able to spot the insurance plan with equivalent coverage but a way lower price. And when that happens, people will flock to that insurance plan. This is a significantly larger incentive to try out risky investments in cost-saving prevention, which also means it’s quite a risk not to try anything out for fear that you’ll lose all your customers. Finally, cost-saving prevention projects that actually decrease overall health spending and keep patients healthier will top every analyst’s list!

And in case you’re wondering what role increasing health costs have played in this whole thing, the answer is . . . probably nothing. Health costs have always risen, and insurers have always raised premiums to maintain pretty constant profit margins. Sometimes spending increases slower and they make a bundle, sometimes costs rise faster than predicted and they increase premiums even more the next year. But none of this changes the risk-reward evaluation done by analysts to decide if they should finally start to invest in cost-saving measures, although it might in an indirect way because people are clamoring louder (as costs rise) to get cheaper health insurance, but unless those people were finally able to compare the value of different plans, all their clamoring wouldn’t have much of an effect on insurers’ investment strategies.

How to Fix Bad Incentives in Healthcare

When talking health policy, I hear the word “incentive” a lot. “Incentives are perverse.” “We need to realign incentives.” “Let’s provide an incentive for quality through payment reform.” Bla bla bla.

Let’s drop the ambiguities and actually talk specifics for a second. I promise you’ll learn more about healthcare incentives in the next 1 minute than you’ve ever learned in your life.

I can only think of two different kinds of incentives in healthcare: cultural and financial.

Our culture has expectations of healthcare organizations to put the patient first, to find ways to reduce errors, etc. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of getting the cultural incentives right in healthcare, but they can only take us so far without . . .

Financial incentives! A financial incentive works like this: If you do ____, you’ll make more money (i.e., profit). How are we doing on financial incentives? Well, we pay providers more for doing more (especially if it’s invasive); we pay providers more for making mistakes and then fixing them; we pay providers more if they band together to increase bargaining power; we pay providers the same amount even if their quality is poor. So . . . we haven’t done so well with the financial incentives.

But here’s how to think about what financial incentives are needed in any situation:

  1. Decide what job you want the organization/industry/whatever to perform
  2. Make it profit from doing that job

I, personally, think a healthcare system’s job is to get/keep us healthy (weird, I know). So that means healthcare organizations need to profit from getting/keeping us healthy; in other words, “profit from wellness” (that’s how they say it in The Innovator’s Prescription).

If we can find ways to get healthcare organizations to profit from wellness, it would solve all kinds of problems! They would be going nuts trying to provide preventive care. They would be spending lots more time with us training us how to manage chronic diseases so we don’t have ED visits and complications. They would be counseling us on weight loss and smoking cessation. And they would be working like crazy to reduce costly errors! (Quality problem: solved.)

So the government can either (1) try to fix bad underlying financial incentives through regulating the healthcare system to death or (2) focus on finding ways to help healthcare organizations’ underlying profit motive be patients’ wellness. One is the bariatric surgery approach, the other is a real solution.

UPDATE: I’ve been thinking more about this, and I should probably mention a few caveats. First, profit from wellness doesn’t work for end-of-life care, for obvious reasons, so a different incentive is needed then. Second, profit from wellness doesn’t work if the payer has a short time horizon because it won’t reap the savings from providing preventive care now to avoid more costly care later. Third, quality problems might not be completely solved just from profiting from wellness because I don’t know if better quality is always cheaper in the long run. Honestly, why do you people let me get away with this stuff by not posting scathing comments?

UPDATE 2: I think the definition of the healthcare industry’s job to “get/keep us healthy” isn’t quite specific enough. The job should really be defined as to get/keep us healthy over the long term, since I’d like to be healthy now and in the future. Thus, profit from long-term wellness. This time horizon issue is a key piece to the foundation on which we will build our future health system.