Anti-kickback Safe Harbors, Drug Rebates, Biosimilars, and FDA

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be issuing a series of posts to further analyze some of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) new Biosimilars Action Plan.

Drug rebate contracts Outside of patent litigation, the greatest barrier to biosimilar access is the current drug rebate contracts agreed to by pharmaceutical companies, health plans, and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). This contracting system persuades payers to maintain coverage of a heavily rebated biosimilar rather than providing access to a lower retail priced drug. Scott Gottlieb, MD, FDA Commissioner, has said that payers will need to start considering whether their rebate revenue on originator biologics are more valuable than the viability of the biosimilar industry overall. The real question is, what can the federal government do about drug rebate contracts?

Dr. Gottlieb believes that they are anticompetitive and cause higher drug prices over time; drug rebate contracts may be in direct conflict with the intent of the federal anti-kickback statues that allow them in the first place. In May, he and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Azar indicated that they may ask for a review of the safe harbors provided for drug rebates.

Anti-kickback Safe Harbors and Drug Rebate Contracts

The anti-kickback statute has been in place since 1971, but these specific safe harbors, protecting drug companies from anti-kickback laws, were introduced more than 2 decades ago. The federal government provides an excellent resource for information about these safe harbors at the Federal Register website. In brief, the safe harbors define exceptions to situations where organizations are receiving “remuneration” for providing goods or services. A rebate given as an incentive to provide a drug (i.e., on formulary) or to utilize more of a product (i.e., “performance rebates”) would currently qualify for safe harbor protection.

Last week, HHS moved on this issue, filing the proposed rule “Removal of Safe Harbor Protection for Rebates to Plans or PBMs Involving Prescription Pharmaceuticals and Creation of New Safe Harbor Protection.” Although the content of the filing has not yet been released, the title and previous statements on the matter by Secretary Alex Azar, do not bode well for drug rebate contracts and payers and the PBM industry tied to them.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national trade group for payers, supported a study supported that disputes one of these assertions. The study, conducted by Milliman, concludes that among part D plans studied, rebates did not independently cause higher drug costs. The greatest rebates were found in drug categories with the most competition from other brands (not generics). Instead, Milliman found that the use of rebates was in direct proportion to the degree of competition in a drug category. “Over the four-year period from 2013 to 2016, brand drugs with manufacturer rebates in 2016 had higher price trends than brand drugs without rebates,” according to the report. In other words, the rebates helped mitigate the price increases.

Although a bold move by the Department of Health and Human Services, removing drug-rebate safe harbors will be tricky. It will threaten the bottom lines of the PBM industry. Rebates comprise a significant portion of their revenue. Health plans also receive a portion of that revenue; they claim that these rebates are used to hold down premium costs. In any case, plans and insurers will need to evaluate how to account for less rebate monies but perhaps lower drug prices. For these reasons, we can expect quite a pushback from these sectors should the federal government proceed.

Specialty Drugs Mostly Under the Medical Benefit

Furthermore, all biosimilars (approved and investigational) are classified as specialty drugs by their cost, storage needs, and/or route of administration. This means that they are more likely covered under the medical benefit than the pharmacy benefit. It is thus also likely that the PBM’s specialty pharmacy units or their specialty pharmacy partners will be directly affected by any biosimilar-targeted changes in the anti-kickback laws.

The Trump administration also indicated the desire to move several drugs from coverage under Medicare part B to part D. Whereas Medicare does not currently negotiate prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers, private Medicare insurers can. This may enable price negotiation under part D providers and Medicare Advantage plans. Ironically, might this be a rebate-related negotiation?

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