How to Avoid Costly Mistakes in Choosing a Medicare Plan

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Medicare’s annual open enrollment runs from October 15th to December 7th. During this time, Medicare subscribers can join or change plans including:

  • Medicare Advantage plans:
  • Return to the original Medicare coverage
  • Medicare Supplemental (Medigap) plans;
  • Part D Prescription Drug plan

It is very important to make an informed choice of the best insurance plan for your medical needs, preferences, and budget. A bad choice can cost you thousands of dollars and prevent you from receiving services that you need from your preferred providers.

Medicare Insurance Options for Seniors

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Original Medicare is the government-run health insurance for seniors and disabled people that use private doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers.

By comparison, Medicare Advantage (MA) plans that often include a prescription drug plan, stand-alone Prescription Drug plans (PDP) that are used with original Medicare and Medigap (Supplemental) plans are all sold by private insurance companies that are subsidized and regulated by Medicare.

These plans are offered by a variety of large for-profits (eg. United Healthcare, Humana, Aetna), national non-profit organizations such as Blue Cross and many regional non-profit insurers.

In addition, some seniors are eligible to receive their health insurance through their current or former employer.  And most Veterans are eligible to receive their health care and medications through the Veterans Administration.

Common Problems to Avoid

Your plan doesn’t include your preferred service providers.

If you don’t verify that your health care providers have a network contract with the insurer that you are considering, you could be facing huge bills. You could be responsible for paying the full cost of expensive services from health care providers or declined service.

Out-of-Network does not mean out of your area. Your preferred health care provider could be next door, but may not have a contract with your insurance company.

Be especially cautious of PPO plans, often sold by national insurers, that lead you to believe that you can go to any doctor anywhere. This is not accurate. Many times national insurers have not developed local provider networks or formal contracts. They often pay commissions to insurance agents to sell policies but do not have local staff to resolve provider and subscriber issues and concerns. These are often handled by central call centers.

The fine print in PPO plan documents includes this disclaimer: “Out-of-Network/non-contracted providers are under no obligation to treat plan members, except in emergencies”

This means that while you may have insurance, you may not be able to find a provider that accepts your plan, for a variety of reasons.

You Didn’t Anticipate High Deductibles and Out-of-Network Costs

Some plans, such as the Aetna Elite PPO are advertised as a $0 premium plan, however you need to pay the first $1,000 for many medical services plus an additional $350 deductible for Tier 3,4 & 5 drugs  including vaccines that do not have a generic equivalent. In HMO plans, you could be responsible for the full cost of “out-of-network” services.

Consumers need to be aware that each insurer decides what drugs to include and exclude, and what they will charge subscribers. Generally, you will be responsible for the full cost of medications that are not included in the plan’s formulary.  Drug prices can also vary by the pharmacy that you choose and if you choose a 90 day mail-order supply versus a more costly monthly supply.

In considering plans, you should not focus solely on the advertised premium cost, but rather your medical, drug, out-of-network needs and your projected out-of-pocket expenses including premiums, deductibles, co-pays, out-of-network charges and drug costs.unknown-1

Medicare.gov provides a  “plan finder” that helps you analyze medical & drug expenses among various plan options that are available where you live.

 

 

You Didn’t Consider Medigap Plans for High Medical Expenses and Maximum Choices

Many Medicare Advantage HMO plans have little or no out-of-network coverage and you may have to pay for the full costs of services that you receive. If you have serious medical conditions that require costly tests, hospitalization, nursing home rehabilitation, outpatient


surgery and intensive outpatient treatment such as cancer, heart disease, renal disease and/or you would like the freedom to select specialty providers outside of your plan’s network, you’ll need good coverage at an affordable price. “Original Medicare” has no limit on your annnual expenses. And, Medicare Advantage plans have a high annual maximum out-of-pocket limit of $6,700 but there is an alternative–Medigap plans.

As a general guide, if your projected annual out-of-pocket medical expenses (premiums, deductibles & co-pays – excluding your prescription drug expenses) exceeds $3,000/yr. and/or you want Medicare coverage across the country, you should explore a Medigap plan.

Medigap plans provide supplemental coverage to original Medicare and pays for deductibles and copays. All healthcare providers who participate in Medicare across the country are included and there are no out-of-network exclusions or surcharges.

Medigap plans are regulated by each state and you can receive information on the availability of plans and their premiums by contacting your state insurance department medicare.gov/contacts.

You Didn’t Think You Needed or Understood Differences in Prescription Drug Plansmed prices

Most Medicare Advantage plans include prescription drug (Part D) coverage. However, if you have “Original Medicare” with/or without a Medigap plan, you will also need to purchase a prescription drug plan (Part D) unless you have an approved employer drug plan or receive your medications from the VA.

If you don’t have a an approved drug plan and you want to purchase one at a later date, you are likely to be subject to a late enrollment penalty.

Part D plans are sold by private insurance companies and vary from state to state. For example, in New York State 27 plans are available from 10 different insurers. The premium and deductible cost of plans in New York varies widely from a Humana Walmart plan that costs $13 a month with a $435 deductible to a SilverScript plan that costs $91 a month with no deductible.

It is also important to check plans that you are considering to confirm that the medications that you need are included and what your co-pays and total annual expenses will be before enrolling in a plan.

Medicare.gov has a planfinder that compares the different cost of the various Part D plans based on the medications that you use and where you live.

You Didn’t Expect a Medicare Enrollment Penalties

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Medicare rules require that if you want to receive Medicare benefits, you need to enroll and pay your Medicare Part B (outpatient) and Part D (prescriptions) premiums when you are first eligible. There are a few penalty exceptions, for example, if you receive creditable medical and drug insurance from you or your spouse’s employer, if you receive your medications from the VA.

Medicare penalties can be significant. The Part B (outpatient care) late enrollment penalty is 10% for each year, from the date of your initial Part B eligibility. The Part D (prescription drugs) penalty is 1% for each month from when you were initially eligible, or June 2006, the start of the program. There are a few circumstances when penalties can be reduced or eliminated.

The Importance of Having a Good Medicare Plan

Selecting the best plan for you or your family member is a very important responsibility since the consequences can be significant, both to your pocketbook and your ability to receive needed health care from your preferred providers.

Investing time in planning and seeking objective advice in selecting a plan, can save you a lot of time, money and headaches. The following is a list of free resources that are available to help you.

Resources

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Social Security Administration, socialsecurity.gov, 800-772-1213

The Social Security Administration is the agency that you need to contact to apply for your Social Security benefits and enroll in Medicare Part B and D., In addition, you can be screened for eligibility (income and resources) and apply for “Extra Help” with your Part D premium and cost of your medications

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Medicare: Medicare.gov – 800-633-4227

An excellent resource with Medicare information and specific help in comparing Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Plans in your area.

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State Health Insurance Assistance Program  SHIP 877-839-2675

Medicare contracts with states, counties and nonprofit organizations to provide individuals with personalized education, support, and assistance with Medicare.

These free services include comparative plan information, eligibility for financial assistance as well as help with selecting a Medicare plan, enrolling, and resolving problems.

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Partnership for Prescription Assistance

 This is an online information resource tool. You can learn about assistance programs that are available for specific medications, along with the eligibility criteria and program applications.

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Medicare Rights Center, medicarerights.org , Helpline: 800-333-4114

The Medicare Rights Center is a national, nonprofit consumer service organization that works to ensure access to affordable health care for older adults and people with disabilities through counseling and advocacy, educational programs and public policy initiatives.

 

This article was updated in October 2019 from an earlier post.

Shingrix – The CDC Recommended Vaccine that Most Medicare Plans Cover, But Few will Pay for it.

Background

Shingles affects nearly 500,000 of Americans over 60, every year. It can be a very painful and debilitating condition. However it can be prevented with a vaccine. Shingles causes a rash with itchy blisters on your body along with shooting nerve pain. It can attack older adults’ as well as individuals with weakened immune systems as a result of chemotherapy, long-term use of steroids and other conditions.

Shingles can be contagious to people who have never had chickenpox or have not been vaccinated. People especially at-risk are pregnant women, newborns and children who have not been vaccinated.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended Shingrix as the preferred vaccine because it is 90% effective in preventing shingles. The average cost of Shingrix is $300 for the two required vaccines and it’s effective for the rest of your lifetime.

In my work as a Medicare counselor in Rochester, NY (Upstate New York), I have reviewed the formularies of all 24 Medicare Advantage (MA) plans and 27 stand-alone Part D prescription drug plans (PDP) in Rochester service area.

And, here is what  I learned…….

  • All the MA and PDP include Shingrix in their plan’s formulary.
  • However, only one MA plan (nonprofit Excellus Blue Cross/Blue Shield), classified Shingrix as a Tier 1 vaccine with no premium, deductible or co-pay.
  • Other MAs offered by: Aetna/CVS, nonprofit MVP, United HealthCare and WellCare that have monthly premiums ranging from $0 to $350 and deductibles ranging $0 to $395 listed Shingrix as a Tier 3 drug
  • All of the 27 PDPs offered by: Cigna, Emblem, Envision, Express Scripts, Humana, Magellan, JourneyRX, Silverscript, United HealthCare and Wellcare also classified Shingrix as a Tier 3 vaccine with monthly premiums ranging from $13.20/mo. with a $435 deductible to a plan with a $91.20/mo. premium and no deductible.

Conclusion

The bottom line is (with the exception of Excellus Blue Cross) 50 private Medicare drug plans that are under contract with Medicare and receive generous subsidies, include Shingrix in their formulary, but classifying it as a Tier 3 drug make it subject to a deductible that is equal to the price of the vaccine. As a result, you are paying for the full cost of the CDC recommended vaccine and these 50 insurers are paying nothing.

At the same time, The President and Congress give away $95 billion a year of taxpayer’s money to subsidize private insurance companies that sell private Medicare policies. In return, the insurance and pharmaceutical companies pay over $ 9 million a year in campaign contributions to candidates and members of Congress.

Final Thoughts

This is just one of many examples, that illustrates how American health care services are the most costly in the world with the poor outcomes due to unethical practices that have become commonplace on the part of elected and appointed officials, insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Medicare insurance policies and contracts need to be reformed to make them rational, sustainable and cost-effective. And meaningful ethical standards need to be established, monitored and enforced. Science and accepted clinical evidence needs to replace the dominance of the financial self-interest of elected and appointed federal office holders and the billion dollar insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

If you want to see the Medicare insurance system change, let your elected federal representatives and candidates running for office in 2020 know your views. Remember you pay their generous federal salaries and benefits and it is their job to represent the common good of the people that they are expected to represent.

And, if you plan to get a Shingrix vaccine soon, first check the coverage and cost of your current plan and other available insurance plans in your area. You have the opportunity to change your Medicare plan for next year by December 7th.

Be the change you want to see.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not compensated or have a relationship with any insurance or pharmaceutical company mentioned in this article.

 

 

 

Eight Things You Need Know about Medicare Prescription Drug Plans before Enrolling

 

  1. Medicare pays private insurance companies $95 billion each year in subsidies for Prescription Drug Plans (PDP) in addition to what enrollees pay in plan premiums, deductibles and co-pays for your medications.
  2. There is no annual limit on your out-of-pocket prescription drug expenses that are sold by private insurers.
  3. Private insurers control their drug expenses by restricting your access to medications that your doctor prescribes through: their drug formularies that exclude specific drugs, require prior authorization, limit quantities, require you to take lower cost drugs before higher cost drugs are approved and by establishing their own drug price tiers, annual deductibles and the amount that you are required to pay for prescriptions.
  4. There are significant differences among Medicare Part D plans including: the drugs they include, what Tiers they assign to their included drugs, and the premiums, deductibles, co-pays and coinsurance that subscribers are required to pay.
  5. Although Medicare Part D plans are not allowed to deny coverage or charge higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions, their prescription drug policies provide a clear message of who they want, and don’t want as subscribers.
  6. The cost of medications in the US to treat millions of Americans with life-threating diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Hepatitis B, inflammatory diseases, respiratory diseases, various cancers, organ transplants are the highest in the world.
  7. Big Pharma and the insurance industry have been very successful in controlling Congress and the Executive branch with the millions that they pay each year in political campaign contributions and lobbying.
  8. In return, Big Pharma and the insurance industry has insiders working in key executive positions in government, such as the White House advisors, Congressional committees staff, Departments of Health and Human Services (Alex Azar), Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (Seema Verma) and the Food & Drug Administration (Scott Gottlieb) where they use their industry special interest in writing federal legislation, establishing policies, regulations, administrative practices and weakening regulatory compliance and sanctions for violations.
  9. This situation results in higher taxes, huge goverment debt and the highest prescription drug costs in the world for life-threatening conditions that many Americans can’t afford.

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A review of four major Medicare Advantage plan insurers in Upstate New York including for-profits: Aetna, United HealthCare and WellCare and regional non-profits: MVP and Excellus Blue Cross revealed the following observations.

  • All insurers target enrolling healthy seniors and provide incentives with low or no monthly premiums along with gym memberships.
  • All insurers have developed financial disincentives for individuals that are prescribed: “non-preferred” brand-name and generic medications, specific medications that they have excluded, requiring deductibles up to $380yr., medications that require co-pays up to $100 mo. and co-insurance charges of up to 33%.

In summary, you may have insurance for your prescription drugs in your private Medicare Part D Plan, but you may not have coverage or the ability to pay for your critically needed medications for life-sustaining treatment.

As result,  it is very important that you that you educate yourself and confirm that the Medicare drug plans that you considering meets your needs and budget during this Medicare open enrollment period that ends, December 7th.

It’s Not Too Late to Change your Medicare Advantage plan

As a result of new federal legislation, subscribers of Medicare Advantage Plans will have three additional months (January-March each year) to change their plan. 

Why would you want to change plans now?

Some reasons could include:

  •  You missed the Annual Fall Open Enrollment period (October 15-December 7)
  • You didn’t realize your plan doesn’t include your medications, preferred doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, etc.
  • Your health condition has changed and you want better coverage.
  • Your financial situation has changed and you can’t afford your current plan.
  • You or your relative didn’t understand the limitations, cost or consequences of their current plan

Normally, you wouldn’t be able to change plans for these reason during the calendar year, except in special circumstances. However, now you will have 3 additional months to make a change each year.

To be eligible to make a change, you must currently be a subscriber of a Medicare Advantage plan (as opposed to being a subscriber to Original Medicare).

What are Some Permitted Changes?

  • You can change from one Medicare Advantage plan to another (from the same or a different insurer)
  • You can select a new plan that either increases or decreases your coverage and/or cost.
  • You can terminate your Medicare Advantage plan and switch to Original Medicare and buy (or not buy), a stand-alone Prescription Drug Plan (PDP).
  • In some states, like New York, you can also choose to purchase a Medicare Supplemental (Medigap) plan for added coverage to Original Medicare, with or without purchasing a PDP.

Is there anyone who can help you look at your options and their consequences?

Yes, there are a number of free independent resource people that don’t receive any sales compensation that can help you understand these complex issues.  They include:

SHIP connects you with local individual and group information/assistance regarding Medicare issues and questions.

 

https://www.medicarerights.org

National Helpline: 800-333-4114

MRC helps people with Medicare understand their rights and benefits, and navigate the Medicare system.

What to Look for in a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan

 

Background

  • Approximately 43 million or 72% of the people on Medicare are enrolled in Medicare-approved Prescription Drug Plans (PDP)
  • If you have Original Medicare (with or without) a Medigap plan, you likely need a PDP to have drug coverage and avoid a future penalty.
  • You need to have a PDP from the month that you were initially eligible for Medicare, or 2006 when PDPs were first established or you have subject to a penalty.
  • Most Medicare Advantage Plans include prescription drug coverage along with medical coverage.
  • There are no annual maximum out-of-pocket prescription drug expenses for either Medicare Advantage or stand-alone PDPs. Original Medicare & Medigap plans do not cover prescription drug expenses, you need to buy a separate PDP.
  • Medicare-approved stand-alone PDPs are sold primarily by large, for-profit insurers such as Aetna/CVS, Cigna, Humana, and United HealthCare. Medicare enters into contracts with private insurers to provide PDPs that meet specific requirements.
  • Private insurers are also allowed to charge subscribers plan premiums, deductibles and co-pays/co-insurance for medications. They can also exclude specific drugs from their formulary, establish restrictions: such as requiring prior insurer authorization, limit medication quantities and require that subscribers take lower-cost drugs before higher-cost drugs.
  • Each insurer establishes their own drug classifications into pricing tiers and there are significant differences among PDPs regarding the drugs that are excluded/included along with the premiums, deductibles, co-pays/coinsurance that subscribers are required to pay.
  • Although PDPs are not allowed to deny coverage or charge higher premiums to subscribers with pre-existing conditions and chronic diseases, insurers have latitude in establishing restrictions and subscriber charges.
  • Private insurers receive over $95 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies for PDPs. This represents 71% of the total prescription drug plans costs.
  • Unlike the rest of the developed world, in the USA there is no public Medicare insurance for medications or government negotiation of drug prices with the exception of the VA. As a result, the cost of medications in the United States, to treat millions of Americans with life-threating diseases such as diabetes, cancers, multiple sclerosis, Hepatitis B, inflammatory diseases, respiratory diseases, organ transplants are the highest in the world.
  • The cost of medications has become a huge burden on taxpayers; federal, state and local governments; employers; patients and families. This results in more costly health care with poorer outcomes, increases in disability, reduced work productivity and becomes a major cause of personal bankruptcies in the USA.
  • Medicare Quality Star Ratings -Medicare uses a Quality Star Rating System to measure how well Medicare Advantage and Part D plans perform. Medicare scores how well plans perform annually in several categories including quality of care and customer service. Ratings range from Poor (1 star), Below Average (2 Stars), Average (3 Stars), Above Average (4 Stars) and Excellent (5 Stars). Details of specific PDP and Medicare Advantage plan ratings are published on Medicare.gov.

A review of major insurers and their 23 PDPs in Upstate New York including plans by Aetna, Cigna, Express Scripts, Humana, SilverScripts, United HealthCare (UHC)  and WellCare reveal the following observations.

  • Each insurer generally offers 3 plans with different premiums and deductibles. Premiums range from $15.50 a month with a $415 deductible (WellCare Value Script) to $92.50/mo. with a $350 deductible (Express Scripts Medicare Choice)
  • Seven plans have no deductibles with premiums ranging from $39.70/mo.                    (SilverScriptsChoice) to $80./mo.(Humana Enhanced & SilverScript Allure).
  • The Medicare Quality Star ratings of plans vary from 3.5/5 Stars ( 3 SilverScript plans & UHC AARP Preferred) to low-rated plans (EnvisionRx Plus 1.5/5 & three Cigna plans 2/5 Stars). Other plans offered by Aetna, Humana, WellCare, and two UHC plans each received a 3 Star rating.
  • All insurers have developed strong financial disincentives for subscribers who use “non-preferred” brand name and generic medications by establishing medication exclusions, deductibles and up to 50% co-insurance for Tier 4 drugs.
  • Many insurers also charge higher prices for standard pharmacies and 30-day supplies with lower prices for “preferred” retail and mail-order pharmacies. However, many consumers and health care providers are unaware of what pharmacies are preferred and the cost differences that can be substantial.

PDPCostChronicDiseases

  • There are significant differences among insurers in the number of brand name and specialty drugs that are excluded in their formularies. Some diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and various neurological, cardiovascular, inflammatory, autoimmune and respiratory diseases have higher-cost Tier 4 & 5 medications and more excluded drugs than other conditions. This creates major conflicts among insurers, physicians and patients.
  • The co-insurance rate for Tier 4 “non-preferred generic and brand” medications in many cases is double the co-insurance rate for more costly Tier 5 specialty drugs. Many plans exclude specific medications or place them in Tier 4, that are used to treat common conditions such as diabetes, inflammatory, autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases in favor of other specific drugs sold by competitor drug companies. Insurers have increased “excluded medications” by 160% in the past 4 years and boast about saving billions of dollars each year by reducing access to treatment and raising patient expenses.

Differences in Subscribers Satisfaction with Plans

One dimension of Medicare’s quality ratings is the analysis of subscribers’ level of satisfaction with their specific PDP or Medicare Advantage plan. Medicare looks at a number of areas including quality of services and customer service. Two area that are important to look at include turnover rates (the percentage of subscribers who leave the plan) and the major reasons for leaving. The following analysis focuses on 23 PDP plans sold in Upstate New York.

SilverScript

  • SilverScript’s three plans: Choice ($37.90), Plus ($73.80) and Alure ($80/mo.) stand out from other plans in that they all have a 3.5/5 Star rating; none have deductibles and they have a low subscriber turnover rate of 6%  but 34% of subscribers who left complained about costs.

UHC

  • UHC AARP 3.5 Star Preferred plan ($77.70) with no deductible) and had a low 7% turnover rate but 56% of the people who left, complained about the high costs.
  • UHC other two plans: AARP Saver Plus ($59.90/mo. + a $415 deductible) and AARP Walgreens ($28.10/mo. + $415 a deductible) have a lower, 3 Star rating and 15% turnover rate with 45% of subscribers who left, complained about costs.

Humana

  • Humana‘s three plans earned 3 star Medicare ratings including its Walmart Rx ($35.70/mo.+ $415 deductible)Preferred Rx ($37.40/mo. + $415 deductible) and Enhanced ($80.50/mo. with no deductible. The plans all had 11% turnover and 31% subscriber complaints regarding costs.

WellCare

  • WellCare’s plans all were rated 3 stars rated and ranged in price from Value Script ($15.50/mo.+ $415 deductible), Classic ($37.90/mo.+ $415 deductible) and Extra ($81.50/mo. with no deductible) all had consistent turnover rates of 13% and 33% complaints about costs.

Aetna

  • Aetna’s 3 star Select ($17.70/mo. + $330 deductible) had 12% turnover and 33% complaints about costs while their 3-star Value Plus plan ($58.80/mo. with no deductible) had 24% turnover and 53% complaints about costs.

In summary, in considering PDPs it is important to confirm if the plans:

  • Include your medications and at what costs
  • Have a deductible expense on your drugs;
  • Have restrictions on access to your medications,
  • Have preferred retail and mail-order pharmacies,
  • Have high subscriber turnover and/or have other significant negative issues identified by subscribers and/or Medicare.

And finally, what is the total annual cost to receive your medications from each plan and the comparative differences in quality, costs and benefits.

Resources

Free resources are available to help you in comparing costs among plans. These include:

Medicare Plan Finder

Provides detailed information from Medicare to compare Quality Star ratings, your estimated annual and monthly cost (premiums, deductibles, co-pays/co-insurance) for your specific medications and pharmacies among available Prescription Drug Plans and Medicare Advantage Plans sold in your community.

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State Health Insurance Assistance Program

Provides free personal and group information/assistance with Medicare issues and questions.

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MedicareRights

Helps people with Medicare understand their rights and benefits, and navigate the Medicare system

References

Congressional Budget Office, 2018 reports

Kaiser Family Foundation, 2018 Data Briefs and Fact Sheets

Medicare.gov

Medicare Rights Center

Medicare Trust Fund Board of Trustees, 2018 Annual Report

The Doctor-Patient Rights Project

 

 

How Pharma is So Successful in Keeping US Drug Prices Extraordinary High?

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The simple answer is: Pharma is a trillion dollar industry that uses their enormous power and profits (that are made on the backs of very serious & chronically ill patients) to buy loyal support and kill their opposition with the aid and assistance of lawmakers and regulators.

Who else is affected by the collateral damage from the US having the highest drug costs in the world? The answer is the vast majority of people including the primary payers of insurance such as public and private employers and employees (who are burdened with high drug costs via insurance premiums, co-pays, and deductibles); federal, state and local governments that pay for drugs via Medicaid, Medicare, VA, and federal, state and local: hospitals, nursing homes, schools, jails and prisons.

Who pays the most for the high cost of drugs? ….Everyone who pays local, state and federal taxes.

While pharma companies receive the biggest financial reward for their lucrative business model, there are other groups that also receive significant benefits from the high cost of drugs. These include insurance companies, their executives, and employees, Pharmacy Benefit Management (PBM) companies, who make money from deals arranged for insurance companies with pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies, hospitals that receive high profit margins on drugs that they administer, and the advertising and media industry that sells non-stop ads that bombards consumers with TV, radio and print drugs ads every 24 hours. In 2015, pharma spent a record $5.4 billion on direct advertising to consumers, primarily through television.

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Big Pharma tries to justify the high cost of new drugs due to the high cost of research and development. However, their claims are not supported by the facts. Big Pharma spends 170% more on marketing and sales of their drugs than research and development. Secondly, the same drugs that are available throughout the world, cost up to 300% more in the US. Why….because elected federal and state officials have sold out the American people to Big Pharma. Politicians accept millions of dollars in drug money and in exchange, let Big Pharma do whatever they want without any ethical or moral boundaries.

A number of well-documented articles in Kaiser Health News and other sources have described some of the very effective strategies that Big Pharma and their $270 million trade organization (PhRMA) use to buy loyal support from US elected officials, healthcare practitioners, and patient groups.

Common strategies include:

  • Eliminate product and price competition by successfully having federal and state elected and appointed officials ban re-importation of the brand name prescription drugs from Canada, Europe, and other counties at substantially lower costs to US consumers.
  • Restrict drug competition with lengthy drug patent protection, the extension of patents, allowing pharma to legally “pay to play” to influence FDA new drug guidelines/regulations and for pharma’s  “pay to delay” the release of generics by other companies resulting in substantially higher costs to consumers.

MostAdvertised-Drugs2015

  • Marketing their newest and most expensive brand name products, Big Pharma spent $5.4 billion in 2016 to market their drugs directly to consumers using TV, radio and print media. They focus on describing symptoms to create increased patient demand and encouraging individuals to talk to their doctor about prescribing their specific brand name prescriptions. By comparison, this sales practice is prohibited in the vast majority of other developed countries in the world and is opposed by the American Medical Association.
  • Pharma also tries to lure patients to use their expensive new drugs with coupons and low-cost trial offerings of their drugs.
  • Pharma has established a proliferation of complicated Patient Assistance Programs that are aimed at increasing demand for their individual drugs while deflecting criticism of their high cost. However, as patients explore these programs, they realize that the drug companies control access to these drugs with personal, financial and insurance eligibility hurdles. For example, they exclude almost half the population that receives Medicare or Medicaid.

DrugMoney

  • In 2016, Pharma spent over $57 million in contributions to the state, congressional and presidential candidates and office-holders. When members of Congress, especially in leadership positions, receive millions of dollars in drug money, do you really think they are going to bite the hand that feeds them?
  • Pharma also spent more than $2 million in donations to various non-profit organizations that provide education, support, and direct services to individuals/families (current & potential customers) that are afflicted with serious and chronic diseases that align with their pharma products. Some of the major groups that have received over $100,000 in 2016 include the American Autoimmune & Related Disease Association, the Lupus Foundation, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the American Lung Association.
  • Individual pharma companies and the PhPMA trade organization also employ doctors and nurses to build relationships and “educate” other practitioners on the specific pharma products that they represent. Relationship building with prescribing practitioners is also pursued by funding “medical education” lunches/dinners, sponsoring conferences and providing honorariums to individuals for providing “medical education” and sharing their client user data.
  • Pharma has launched a new $7 million pharma campaign (Go Boldly) that is designed to shape a positive public opinion of the pharma industry.
  • PhRMA and individual pharma companies have spent over  $175 million to defeat a California proposal that would have required California agencies to pay no more for drugs than does the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • In Louisiana, where policymakers were considering proposals to make drug prices clearer to consumers, PhRMA gave more than $600,000 in campaign contributions directly to scores of state and local legislators last year and were successful in defeating the legislation.
  • PhRMA also gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to help defeat a ballot proposal for single-payer health care in Colorado.
  • PhRMA also aimed significant spending in other states including Arizona, Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusettes, New York, New Jersy, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington where legislators are considering pharma-related regulations that propose drug price limits and greater price transparency.
  • Pharma has established a very effective job training and recruitment program in which they financially invest in politicians and their staff;  evaluate their performance and loyalty in carrying out pharma priorities, and after they have proven themselves (at taxpayers expense), they hire a select group, at lucrative salaries to work as lobbyists for the pharma industry. These former elected officials and staff members come with a network of government insider relationships and intelligence which pharma exploits to their advantage.
  • Pharma and other industries have also been very effective in placing their loyal people in strategic federal governmental departments at executive levels often serving as senior policy advisors, where they develop budgets, write legislation and develop policies and procedures that favor pharma while dismantling other laws, regulations and procedures that pharma doesn’t like. Recently, pharma employees and lobbyist have been appointed by the Trump administration into  leadership positions in key federal agencies including the Food & Drug Administration, Department of Health & Human Services and the Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Big Pharma has effectively restricted competition with the assistance of elected and appointed officials and dismisses federal and state penalties and lawsuits for violations of laws and regulations including fraud and marketing unauthorized uses of medication as insignificant compared to the revenue that their actions generate. Ultimately, these financial penalties are viewed as the “cost of doing business” that is passed on to patients, taxpayers and employers and has little impact on their profits, sales, reputation and investor interest.
  • Pharma has also been routinely criticized for their brazen price-gouging of generic and life-threating treatment and maintenance drugs, needed by both acutely and chronically ill patients without any change in their behavior. Pharma continues to be very lucrative with minimal regulation, competition, oversight and the absence of ethical standards.

Trump’s Commitment to Drain the Swamp and Lower Drug Prices

Although Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has boasted that he could save $300 billion in lowering drug costs, two years later, Trump has not taken any executive or legislative action to lower the costs of prescription drugs that continues to personally bankrupt many Americans and substantially adds to the accumulated debt of states and the federal government.

However, in his State of the Union speech on January 30, 2018, Trump once again stated that he will dramatically lower the high cost of prescription drugs for the American people under the leadership of newly appointed Alex Azar, Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

trump&azar

Azar replaced Tom Price MD, former Georgia Congressman and previous Trump HHS Secretary, who resigned in disgrace after only 7 months of repeated issues of unethical behavior.

It should be noted that Mr. Azar is very familiar with Big Pharma and the high cost of prescription drugs. Mr. Azar has served on the board of Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a pharma lobby and was the hired by Eli Lilly as its top lobbyist in 2007. Azar continued to advance within Lilly and in 2012, became President of Lilly USA.

LillyInsulinPrices

During Azar’s tenure at Lilly, their drug prices rose substantially, especially for insulin which is necessary to sustain life. Insulin was discovered, as a life-sustaining treatment of Type 1 diabetes, by two Canadian research physicians who were awarded a Noble Peace Prize over 90 years ago. Ninety years later, the US consumer cost and drug company profits derived from insulin in the continues to rise dramatically, while millions of people with diabetes, in the world, needlessly suffer and die as a result of not having access to affordable insulin.

In 2009, Lilly pleaded guilty and paid a record settlement of $1.4 billion for criminal and civil charges for marketing the unapproved uses of Zyprexa, a powerful antipsychotic Lilly drug. Zyprexa was heavily marketed by Lilly during the period of 1999-2003 to seniors and their families, nursing homes and healthcare professionals for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other symptoms. However, Lilly never requested nor received the required FDA approvals for these expanded uses.

 

So, time will tell how committed and effective Trump and Azar in actually lowering the cost of prescription drugs to tens of millions of Americans. We are in the second year of Trump’s term and waiting to see if his actions will match his words.

References:

  • Drug Watch
  • Kaiser Health News
  • Kantar Media Intelligence
  • Open Secrets
  • Public Citizen’s Health Research Group
  • Stat News
  • The Washington Post
  • The New York Times
  • US Department of Justice
  • World Health Organization

 

 

 

updated 2.3.18

 

Forty-Five States Sue 18 Generic Drug Makers for Price-Fixing Collusion

 

Reuters News has reported that forty-five states and the District of Columbia have joined forces in accusing well-established generic drug makers and their executives of personally engaging in a broad price-fixing conspiracy involving more than a dozen medicines that are used to treat debilitating chronic diseases.

The suit alleges that companies and specific executives have colluded to limit competition and dramatically raise prices of maintenance drugs that are used by millions of people to treat infections, and debilitating diseases such as diabetes, glaucoma, epilepsy, high blood pressure and anxiety.

While the initial response to the allegations was a denial of wrongdoing, former executives from Heritage Pharmaceuticals pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to price fixing and limiting competition. In addition, the former Heritage Pharmaceutical President and the Board Chair & CEO reached a plea deal, agreed to pay fines and cooperate with the broader investigation of generic drug maker pricing practices.

The suit against the generic pharma companies has broadened to include well-known established companies and their executives including  Mylan, Sandoz, Teva , Emcure and Sun. In addition to the suit by the State Attorney Generals, the US Justice Department has begun a parallel criminal investigation into these allegations.

GenericDrugPriceIncreases

While most of the generic drug price hikes were between 100% and 500% over the 7 year period, approximately 1000 generic drugs had increases of a minimum of 500% to more than 1,000%

Unregulated and rapidly rising US pharmaceutical prices have had a negative impact not only on individuals and their private employers and but also on taxpayer-funded village, town, county and state governments including their health insurance costs for teachers, police and other public employees.

And finally, the rapidly rising cost of medications is passed on to taxpayers in the form of increased local and state taxes.

Elected US politicians, who talk about wanting smaller government and lower taxes need to be held accountable for giving Big Pharma an unconditional pass while they accept huge campaign contributions and allow the pharma industry to write the laws and regulations that serve their financial interest over US citizens, who need access to affordable, life-sustaining medications like the rest of the developed world.