The rebate game seems to be overrunning patient affordability and common sense, according to an article in the New York Times. This has been a problem for biosimilars and other high-cost specialty brands, but now it seems to be extending to generics as well, with patients on the losing end of the deal.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers offer rebates to health plans and pharmacy benefit managers to offset a drug’s higher wholesale acquisition costs (WAC) and entice these payers to cover their drug, often at preferred tiers. The result is that new products can be locked out of the formulary or placed on nonpreferred tiers, because the contract requires exclusivity. This has been called the “rebate trap.” The rebate trap was never really a problem for generics in the past, because they were far less expensive than the brands, and with generics made by several companies, the price and rebating competition was too fierce for branded manufacturers to compete.
The New York Times article cited the case of Adderall XR for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The drug has been available as a generic for some time. However, Adderall’s manufacturer, Shire Laboratories, has aggressively rebated their product to compete with the generic, providing a net cost to the health plans and PBMs that is less than the generic. Shire wants to retain some revenues on their products rather than leave the battle to the generic manufacturers. There is nothing wrong with that, and it results in lower net costs—but not for many patients.
First, if the plan has a substantial copayment difference for generics and preferred products, this can mean the average patient will have to pay the higher amount (unless the plan makes adjustments and allows the patient to purchase the brand at the generic copayment level). Second, the rising number of people with high deductible plans (including pharmacy deductibles) will have to pay the higher full price of the branded drug than the generic (according to the Times’ sources, this is about $50/mo). Thus, until they have paid their deductible, these patients are disadvantaged by this rebate arrangement. Consider also that the rebate savings to the payer are rarely, if ever, passed on to the patient.
Here’s the kicker: The pharmacist may be required by the plan to go back to the doctor to ask that they redo their prescription, by checking off the box that requires it be dispensed as written (for the branded product only). This is after generations of pharmacists have been trained on automatic substitution of generics for brands and patients have been persuaded to accept it.
Although the problem is very evident with ADHD, the lack of multisource generics means less competition for other drug classes as well. This is not limited to one payer either. The article mentioned Humana specifically, but it is likely that other payers (national and regional) are also party to these contracts.
This scenario can also hurt competition for biosimilars. Before the entry of Merck’s Renflexis®, Janssen had only contended in the infliximab marketplace with Pfizer’s Inflectra®. Janssen has been willing to cut deals with payers to keep Inflectra off the formulary. However, this could also affect some patients, even though infliximab, an infusible product given in the doctor’s office is usually paid through the medical not pharmacy benefit. If these drugs were covered with a fixed copayment (e.g., $100), patients would not be harmed economically by using any particular product. However, if the patient pays a fixed coinsurance (e.g., 10%), that person may then pay more for the originator drug, because the co-insurance is often calculated according to the WAC (which does not include the rebate) instead of the average sales price ASP (which does).
The problem of rebate traps and the lack of transparency of the system is not new. It may be a different situation if the manufacturer–payer transaction was based solely on simple WAC discounts. There is simply too much rebate money up for grabs for plans and PBMs that the system can be changed easily.