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Medicare ‘doughnut hole’ relief could be offset by higher prescription drug prices

September 21, 2010 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News, Prescription Savings

www.Medtipster.com Source: The Washington Post – 9.21.2010

If you’ve ever seen a sale advertising 50 percent off, you might have wondered if the retail price was ratcheted up to make the discount possible.

Patient advocates are watching to see if a similar tactic undermines one of the most widely publicized benefits of the health-care overhaul that President Obama signed in March.

Beginning next year, at the expense of pharmaceutical companies, millions of senior citizens in the Medicare coverage gap known as the “doughnut hole” will receive 50 percent discounts off the price of brand-name prescription drugs.

The government does not control the underlying prices; the law leaves that to the market.

“There is legitimate concern that some manufacturers will steeply increase the price of drugs in order to offset the cost of the discount to the manufacturers at the expense of both consumers and the Medicare program itself,” the Center for Medicare Advocacy and the Medicare Rights Center said in a letter to the agency that oversees the federal health insurance program.

That agency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, announced in August that the average monthly premium for Medicare prescription drug plans will rise next year by a dollar, to $30.

Officials at the agency and at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), an industry group, said the average premium increase indicates that there has been no spike in prescription drug prices.

Competition in the drug market will serve as a restraint, they said.

“I am confident we will continue to see very low price growth” for the Medicare drug program, said Jonathan Blum, deputy administrator of the government’s Center for Medicare.

But others are worried about the long-term outlook. UnitedHealth Group, which sells prescription drug insurance, has expressed concern “that Manufacturers have not agreed . . . to protect the underlying pricing of the drugs.”

In a June letter to the Health and Human Services Department, UnitedHealth took the extraordinary step of calling for price controls, saying the government should “require Manufacturers to maintain a ceiling on prices that would preserve the value of the discount for beneficiaries.”

“I don’t think all savings will be lost. But they can certainly recoup some of those savings by increasing prices,” said John M. Coster, senior vice president for government affairs at the National Community Pharmacists Association.

The doughnut hole has been a financial abyss for many senior citizens since Medicare prescription drug coverage was first offered in 2006.

For 2010, beneficiaries enter the coverage gap when their prescription tab hits $2,830, including both their share and the amounts paid by insurance. Once in the gap, they are responsible for 100 percent of the cost and must spend $3,610 of their money before qualifying for catastrophic coverage, which typically pays 95 percent of the cost.

Some people in the doughnut hole forgo their medicine; others take less than the proper dosage.

The health-care law will close the coverage gap by 2020, Obama has said. To do that, it provides a combination of federal rebates and subsidies, and also requires drugmakers to foot the cost of the 50 percent discounts.

According to the consulting firm Avalere Health, the discounts will reduce drugmakers’ revenue by $32 billion over 10 years.

Despite that provision, the pharmaceutical lobby served as a key ally to Obama and congressional Democrats in the health-care battle.

For the industry, the outcome could have been worse. The legislation did not include proposals that posed a potentially greater threat to drugmakers – for example, empowering the federal government to negotiate prices.

And, by shrinking the number of uninsured, the legislation will expand the market for prescription drugs.

For drugmakers, offsetting the doughnut-hole discount would not be as simple as raising the price unilaterally.

There are different measures of prices, and the ones that will be discounted by 50 percent are the product of negotiations between retail pharmacies and intermediaries such as insurance plans. However, those negotiated prices are influenced by the ones that manufacturers set higher up the chain.

“I think you can say any price adjustments are independent of the discount,” Merck spokesman Ronald Rogers said by e-mail.

“What I can say is that all of the competitive market forces that were in place previously remain in place,” said PhRMA Senior Vice President Richard Smith.

But the government is trying to establish much lower prices than market forces alone produced.

As new drugs are introduced, manufacturers will probably factor the doughnut discount into their pricing, said Daniel N. Mendelson, chief executive of Avalere.

Some of the most expensive drugs taken by people in the doughnut hole face minimal competition from generics or brand-name alternatives, making them particularly susceptible to price inflation, said Brit Pim, vice president of government programs development at benefits manager Express Scripts. Those include “specialty medications” for complex diseases, he said.

Express Scripts found that in 2009, the average price for specialty medications rose 13.5 percent.

More than 3M seniors may have to switch drug plans

August 25, 2010 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medtipster, Prescription News

www.Medtipster.com Source: The Associated Press – By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar – 8.25.2010

A plan by Medicare to try to make it simpler for consumers to pick drug coverage could force 3 million seniors to switch plans next year whether they like it or not, says an independent analysis.

That risks undercutting President Barack Obama’s promise that people can keep their health plans if they like them.

And it could be an unwelcome surprise for many seniors who hadn’t intended to make a change during Medicare’s open enrollment season this fall.

The analysis by Avalere Health, a leading private research firm, estimated that more than 3 million beneficiaries will see their prescription plan eliminated as part of a new effort by Medicare to winnow down duplicative coverage and offer consumers more meaningful choices.

Seniors would not lose coverage, but they could see changes in their premiums and copayments.

Medicare officials dismissed the Avalere estimate without offering their own number. “Anybody who is producing that kind of analysis is simply guessing,” said Jonathan Blum, deputy administrator for Medicare.

But Bonnie Washington, a senior analyst with Avalere, said the company’s analysis used Medicare’s specifications.

For example, Medicare has already notified insurers they will no longer be able to offer more than one “basic” drug plan in any given location. Several major prescription plans, including CVS-Caremark and AARP, offered two basic options throughout the country this year, Washington said. Eliminating that particular form of duplication among the top plans would force 2.75 million beneficiaries to find new coverage, according to Avalere’s estimate.

When other changes are taken into account, as many as 3.7 million Medicare recipients may have to switch, the analysis concluded. That amounts to about 20 percent of the 17.5 million enrolled in stand-alone drug plans.

Avalere serves industry and government clients with in-depth research on Medicare and Medicaid. The company’s president was a health care budget analyst in the Clinton White House.

Former Medicare administrator Leslie Norwalk said the change might make things easier for people signing up for Medicare but harder for those already in the program.

“If you’re in a plan that you like and you have to change it, it will be disruptive,” said Norwalk, acting administrator under President George W. Bush. “It depends on how (Medicare) handles it to try to make it as seamless as possible.”

Reducing the number of Medicare drug plans has long been a goal for consumer advocates. This year, nearly 1,600 plans offered a dizzying range of options, many of which were not significantly different.

But Medicare is going ahead with the consolidation in a hard-fought election year. Republicans have barraged seniors with charges that Obama and the Democrats raided the program to expand coverage for younger generations under the health care overhaul. Obama’s promise that people can keep health plans they like was made in the context of that broader debate, but the president has repeatedly assured seniors their Medicare benefits are safe.

“Some opponents of the (health care) law may say that this is taking away choices, but we have heard from our members for years that the (drug coverage) options can be confusing,” said Nora Super, AARP’s top health care lobbyist. The seniors lobby supports the change. AARP’s public policy branch is separate from its business side, which sponsors Medicare and other insurance plans.

Medicare official Blum said the agency is working with insurers to keep disruptions to a minimum. For example, seniors could be automatically reassigned to a comparable plan offered by their insurance company. Premiums may not necessarily be any higher, Medicare officials said.

“We are not reducing the number of (insurers). We are not reducing the number of quality plans,” said Blum, adding that having fewer, more distinct choices will benefit seniors. “That puts beneficiaries in a stronger, rather than weaker position.”

Besides eliminating duplicative basic coverage, insurers that offer more than one enhanced coverage plan will have to show they are clearly different.

Medicare is expected to release its list of drug plans for 2011 late next month. Instead of 40 or more choices in each state, seniors may have around 30 plans to pick from.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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