Tag Archives: generics

New/Old Accusations About PBMs And Their Margins

PBMs (or Pharmacy Benefit Managers) are big business.  Just look at a few of the names and their place on the Fortune 500 list:

Not surprisingly, none of those are non-profits.  There is real money being made here.  It’s all part of the mark-up game in healthcare.  The question of course is does the money being made justify the profits.  For example, I’m happy to pay my banker lots of money as long as he’s earning me more than he’s making (and significantly more).

This is a complicated question.  (see past posts on What’s Next, Why People Don’t Save With Mail, and Growing Mail Order)  I’ve also presented on this topic several times in the past pointing out that the model needs to change, and re-iterating the fact that PBMs made a mistake by putting all their profits in the generic space.  I’ve always said that disintermediation would happen by focusing on generics at mail which is where all the money was at Express Script (8 years ago).  [People remind me that some of this has changed and is different across PBMs.]

The new Fortune article by Katherine Eban called “Painful Prescription” certains shows a dark story.  It focuses exactly on one of these scenarios which is the gap between acquisition cost and client cost.  The article talks about paying $26.91 for a drug but selling it to the client at $92.53.  I’m always reminded of the fact that at one time we used to buy fluoxetine (generic Prozac) for about $0.015 per pill.  On the flipside, we had brand drugs that we bought for more than we got reimbursed and lost money.  It was strange model.

So, here’s my questions:

  1. Do you want transparency?  If so, there are lots of “transparent PBMs” and many larger PBMs will do transparent deals.  You can also follow the Caterpillar model.  (Don’t forget that pharmacy represents less than 20% of your total healthcare spend so you can find yourself down the rabbit hole here trying to shave 2% of spend on 20% or 0.4% of your costs with a lot of effort.)
  2. Are you focused on anamolies like this one or average profits per Rx?
  3. Do you have the right plan design in place?
  4. Do you have a MAC (maximum allowable cost) list both at retail and mail order for generics?
  5. Are you getting the rebates and any admin fees from pharma for your claims passed through to you at the PBM?
  6. If you pay the PBM on a per Rx basis (i.e., no spread allowed), what are they doing to keep your drug costs down year over year (i.e., they have no more incentive to push down on suppliers)?
  7. Are you benchmarking your pricing?  Look at reports from places like PBMI.  For many smaller clients, I often wonder if the savings they find you is worth the costs.

I’m sure there’s more since I’ve been out of the industry for a few years, but while I don’t intend to be the defender of the industry, I do like to bring some balance to the conversation.

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How Farmers Outmarketed Pharma

When you think of potatoes, where do you want them to come from? Idaho

When you think of citrus, where do you want it to come from? Florida

When you think of US wine, where do you want it to come from? Napa Valley

When you think of generic drugs, where do you want them to come from? [company?, geography?]

This vacuum is a big problem in terms of commoditization. People don’t think of Teva or Ranbaxy or some other generic company. The average consumer probably doesn’t know who they are. And, they’ve competed based on price for years. If I was the CEO of Teva, this would be the number one challenge I would pose to my staff which was how do I get consumers to ask for my generic version of the drug. The next question should be what would we do to justify this?

For the first time, I think that they have a similar problem that brand pharma does which is how to create an offering not just a pill. The quote below from the CEO of Novartis, tees it up well.

“I also started to shift our business away from a transactional model that was focused on physically selling the drugs to delivering an outcome-based approach to add value beyond just the pill. I really believe that in the future, companies like Novartis are going to be paid on patient outcomes as opposed to selling the pill.”

And, I think this reflects what Sanofi has been experimenting with in terms of diabetes for several years. They launched their iBG Star Blood Glucose Meter to get into the meter space. Sanofi also has heavily invested in social media to give them direct engagement and feedback from consumers. Both of these begin to create more consumer branding for them as an entity.

I’ve talked about this several times over the years based on a book that one of the E&Y partners wrote when I was there called BLUR which was about blending products and services to create offerings. I think this notion combined with the lessons learned that commodities like potatoes have gone through in branding their products offer some insights into what pharma has to do to shift their positioning in the value chain. This is part of what I’ll be discussing at the upcoming PBMI conference where this shift to outcomes based contracting and focus for the industry is critical to long-term survival and differentiation.


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