July 25, 2016
Pricey Drugs Overwhelm Medicare Safeguard
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
A safeguard for Medicare beneficiaries has become a way for drugmakers to get paid billions of dollars for pricey medications at taxpayer expense, government numbers show.
The cost of Medicare's "catastrophic" prescription coverage jumped by 85 percent in three years, from $27.7 billion in 2013 to $51.3 billion in 2015, according to the program's number-crunching Office of the Actuary.
Medicare's catastrophic coverage was originally designed to protect seniors with multiple chronic conditions from the cumulatively high costs of taking many different pills. Beneficiaries pay 5 percent after they have spent $4,850 of their own money. With some drugs now costing more than $1,000 per pill, that threshold can be crossed quickly.
Lawmakers who created Part D in 2003 also hoped added protection would entice insurers to participate in the program. Medicare pays 80 percent of the cost of drugs above a catastrophic threshold that combines spending by the beneficiary and the insurer. That means taxpayers, not insurers, bear the exposure for the most expensive patients.
Concerns about catastrophic costs undercut the image of Medicare's prescription program as a competitive marketplace in which private insurers bargain with drugmakers to drive down prices.
"The incentive is to price it as high as they can," said Jim Yocum, senior vice president of Connecture, Inc., a company that tracks drug prices. Medicare is barred from negotiating prices, "so you max out your pricing and most of that risk is covered by the federal government."
Comment by Don McCanne
When the Medicare Part D program covering drugs was designed, conservatives were in control of the government. As a result it was decided that the ideology of competition in the marketplace should be used to improve value rather than using government administered pricing. Today's message demonstrates once again that markets do not work in health care.
Congress knew that they would have to protect the private insurers from adverse selection - that patients with multiple chronic conditions could place an extra burden on the insurers with whom they enrolled. Thus they established catastrophic coverage with the government (taxpayers) paying 80 percent of the costs over a given threshold. This was not to protect the patients, but rather it was to protect the insurers. That is, it was not to protect the taxpayers who finance much of the program, but rather it was to protect the participants in the marketplace - the drug manufacturers, insurers, and pharmacy benefit managers - using our taxpayer funds.
Under the catastrophic coverage, insurers pay 15 percent, patients pay 5 percent, and the taxpayers pay 80 percent. This allows the drug companies to drive their prices sky high. The 15 percent paid by the insurers is closer to the reasonable price of drugs and so they have less incentive to negotiate better prices, since most of it is being paid by the government anyway. The 5 percent paid by the patient is accepted as a necessary "skin in the game" contribution so patients will not fill prescriptions that they allegedly "do not really need" (a flawed policy concept). The 80 percent paid by taxpayers perpetuates the highly dysfunctional, fragmented financing system in the U.S. - using government money for private solutions - that has driven our health care spending up to levels much higher than all other nations.
The magic of the marketplace in health care is a fraud. Taxpayers pay far less for drugs purchased by the government for Medicaid and the VA system. Other nations with greater government oversight of their health care systems also pay much less.
With a well designed single payer national health program, our nation's pharmacy bill would be fair, and everyone would get the drugs they need. With the price of many drugs now exceeding median household income, you would think there would be a demand to fix our health care financing system. You would think so, but where's the action?