The Winner of Biosimilars vs Incumbents in 2017: Competition

Summary

While 2017 has been bad for biosimilar entrants, it has been good for competition as prices for incumbent drugs such as Remicade have dropped significantly for the first time.  Rather than argue for more legal and legislative protection for biosimilars, we argue for a rethinking of competitive strategy on the part of the entrants.

One of the most profound quotes in antitrust law can be found in a 1962  Supreme Court opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren regarding Brown Shoe Co. v. United States, 370 U. S. 320.  He argued that the U.S. Congress enacted antitrust laws “for the protection of competition, not competitors.”

This idea will being tested to the maximum in the coming years as new biosimilar entrants will have a tough time gaining insurance coverage because of exclusive dealing formulary contracts between incumbents and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) and insurance companies.

If manufacturers of biosimilars choose to litigate, we believe that the courts will dismiss antitrust lawsuits summarily based on the now widely accepted Chicago School theories that vertical restraints such exclusive dealing formulary contracts are presumptively pro-competitive. 

This is because it would not be rational for a buyer to exclude the lowest cost supplier.   See our recent paper Biosimilars and Exclusive Dealing Antitrust Law: The Case of Pfizer, Inc v Johnson & Johnson et. al.

 

Price Competition Between Biosimilars and Incumbents

The potential of biosimilars to compete on price has been greatly enhanced by Federal legislation passed as part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010.  This legislation greatly abbreviated the FDA approval process for biosimilars by allowing entrants to use test results supplied to the FDA by incumbents.

 The accelerated approval process has reduced biosimilar R&D costs by more than 90% from an estimated $2.6 Billion for a new drug to an estimated $100 – $200 Million to develop a biosimilar.

Prior to 2017, most of the attention has focused on the competitive potential of biosimilars. Not much attention had been paid to the potential of incumbents to respond with aggressive price cutting of their own.    Also,  until this year, not much attention had been paid to the potential of insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) to drive price competition through exclusive dealing formulary contracts.   

This is surprising because there there has been considerable evidence  that PBMs have been driving price competition among small molecule brand drugs via exclusive dealing formulary rebate contracts since 2012.  

 

Biosimilars Inflectra® and Renflexis® vs the Incumbent Remicade®

Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) incumbent biologic drug Remicade was approved by the FDA for use in August 1998.  It was the first autoimmune drug to be approved in three different therapeutic classes and is used to treat patients with autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, plaque psoriasis, and ulcerative colitis.

In 2016, Remicade was the 5th highest selling drug in the United States with estimated sales of $5.3 Billion.  Remicade was J&J’s top selling drug, representing 20% of its total global drug sales.     

In November 2016,  Pfizer introduced Inflectra as the first biosimilar to Remicade. It was followed by the introduction of a second biosimilar called Renflexis in June 2017  by Merck and Samsung Bioepis.

At the time of its introduction,  Pfizer list priced Inflectra only 15% below the incumbent, but increased the discount to 35% seven months later to match the list price of the second biosimilar entrant Renflexis.

On September 20, 2017, Pfizer filed a lawsuit Pfizer Inc, v Johnson & Johnson et al (link to the full court filing)  claiming that Johnson & Johnson (J&J) violated Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act by monopolizing the market for its incumbent biologic drug Remicade.   This was achieved via rebate contracts with the largest insurance companies in the USA that had the effect of excluding from coverage Pfizer’s biosimilar drug Inflectra.

Pfizer argued that its rebate offers would have make Inflectra the lower cost drug on a “unit-for-unit” basis.  But, in our paper dealing with this lawsuit,  we presented a spreadsheet (see below)  comparing Pfizer’s unit rebate offer with an estimate of J&J lump-sum rebate offer estimated at 28% off Remicade’s list price contingent on exclusive coverage.  

We concluded that Remicade was still the low cost choice on a total dollar basis and that exclusive dealing contracts between J&J and insurance companies were pro-competitive and not in violation of antitrust laws.  

In September 2017, J&J’s CFO Dominic Caruso told Wall Street analysts  that Remicade sales had dropped only 5% year-over-year.   He attributed J&J’s success to doing a  “pretty good job of contracting for Remicade well in advance of the biosimilar entry from Pfizer.” He also attributed J&J’s success to natural barriers to biosimilar adoption in general.

With the 5% figure doesn’t seem like much, it is masking a larger YoY drop in the net price of Remicade due to the biosimilar entry.  Below is a chart of quarterly US sales for Remicade for a full two years from 3Q15 through 3Q17.   Note the drop in sales dollars beginning in 4Q16 when the biosimilar was first introduced.  A simple projection of sales from 2015 before the biosimilar entry results in a “what-if?” no entry estimated 3Q17 US sales for Remicade of around $1,700 Million.  While YoY sales from 3Q16 to 3Q17 only dropped 5%, we believe that a more accurate estimate of the effect of biosimilar entry is a 20% decline in sales dollars  = (1,700 – 1,362 ) / 1,362.  Again this 20% decline in Remicade sales dollars has to be broken down into quantity changes vs unit price changes.

 According to Pfizer in a 2Q17 conference call with investors,  the results to date with its biosimilar entry had been “disappointing” and “slower than expected”  taking only a 2.3% of the Remicade’s market.

The competition between Remicade and Inflectra represents the first “clean” case study of biosimilar price competition in the United States.   We see several takeaways that future biosimilar entrants might want to keep in mind:

  • Incumbents will have in place insurance coverage contracts with $100+M lump sum rebates contingent upon exclusivity.
  • Entrants should consider adopting a “land and expand” strategy going after coverage for new patients first. 
  • Understand the differences between how PBMs versus how insurance companies negotiate rebates.  With PBMs, it is gross rebates that matter. With insurance companies, it is net price that matters.  In either case, gross rebates in the area of 40% won’t dislodge the incumbent.  It look like it will take gross rebates in the order of 60% to 70% off list price to gain any coverage.

 

The Follow-On Biologic Basaglar® vs the Incumbent Lantus®

Sanofi’s Lantus was the first long-acting insulin drug approved by the FDA in April 2000.  Since then, there has been a number of other long-acting insulin drugs approved that are in the same therapeutic class:  Sanofi’s Toujeo (glargine) and Novo Nordisk’s Levemir (detemir) and Tresiba (degludec). Because these drugs are self-injectable, they are usually covered by a drug benefit plan managed by PBMs as opposed to a medical benefit plan managed by insurance companies.

While Lantus faces competition from therapeutic equivalents, it has remained the dominant drug in the long-acting insulin class.   In 2016, Lantus was the #9 best selling drug in the US with estimated sales around $3.3 Billion dollars.  

On December 15, 2015, Eli Lilly introduced a rapid-acting insulin drug called Basaglar.  It is formally classified as a follow-on biologic, not a biosimilar,  because it was approved under a different approval process.   Notwithstanding the label, this case has relevance to biosimilar competition.

According to Business Insider, Lilly list priced Basaglar only 15% below Lantus at the time of its introduction.  The table below summarizes the 2016 list prices of all rapid acting insulin drugs relative to the incumbent and top seller Lantus.  

According to BioFarmDive, Lantus sales have fallen nearly 17% YoY from 2Q15 to 2Q16.  Some of that has been attributed to price competition from therapeutic equivalents.  Some has been due to quantity reductions as patient have moved to new drugs including Sanofi’s own drug Toujeo.

It appears that Lilly’s tepid list pricing of its biosimilar Basaglar has added nothing to the the price competition (via rebates for formulary placement) that already existed in the rapid-acting insulin therapeutic class.

The fact that the incumbent here was facing significant competition before the entry of a biosimilar is probably unique to the insulin class due to a relative lack of patents protecting biologic production processes for insulin.

As a result, the Basaglar entry is not a “clean” case study of biosimilar competition.  But, what it demonstrates is that once again list pricing a biosimilar not more than 15% below the list price of the incumbent and playing the rebate game is insufficient to gain much insurance coverage.

This lack of impact is reflected in the recently announced 2018 national formularies of the four largest PBMs.  Only CVS Health has decided to include Basaglar and exclude Lantus.

 

Other Biosimilars Approved Since August 2017

We have identified five other biosimilars approved by the FDA in the last half of 2017.  Four have been delayed because of patent disputes, with one  — Humira, the #1 selling drug in the US — being a controversial “pay for delay.”

On December 13, 2017  Pfizer announced that a second biosimilar to the J&J’s incumbent Remicade was approved by the FDA.  Given the failure of Pfizer’s first biosimilar, it did not surprise us to see Pfizer announce that it had no immediate plans to commercialize this second biosimilar.  

We have presented in more detail the price competition between Remicade and Inflectra in our recent paper Biosimilars and Exclusive Dealing Antitrust Law: The Case of Pfizer, Inc v Johnson & Johnson et al.  We believe this experience will impact future biosimilar entry strategies pertaining to list pricing, rebate offers, and target markets.  

In addition, it may increase “no go” decisions regarding biosimilars in the R&D pipeline and “pay for delay” agreements between biosimilars and incumbents.

While 2017 has been bad for biosimilar competitors, it has been good for competition as prices for incumbent drugs Remicade and Lantus have dropped significantly.  Rather than argue for added legal and legislative protection for biosimilars, we argue for a rethinking of competitive strategy on the part of the entrants.


Was CVS’s Formulary Exclusion of Mavyret a Violation of Antitrust Laws?

Summary

In October 2017, CVS Caremark (CVS) finally decided to exclude from its 2018 drug formulary the new-to-market Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) drug Mavyret despite it being list priced aggressively by its manufacturer AbbVie at an estimated 72% below the list price of Gilead Sciences’ incumbent HCV drug Harvoni.

We estimate that Gilead Sciences had to offer CVS a minimum of a 83% rebate percentage in order for Harvoni to have a net price below Mavyret’s list price.  The 83% figure would represent an outlier in reported gross rebate percentages today that generally fall in the 40% to 60% range.

If it turns out that the rebate percentage was less, it sets up an anti-competitive and antitrust case that Mavyret was excluded because of lack of pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) rebate retention despite being the lowest cost drug in the HCV therapeutic class.

We call on CVS Caremark to issue a public statement confirming that its choice to exclude Mavyret was in the best interest of clients because Harvoni was the lower cost drug after rebates.

 

Pharmacy Benefit Managers and Formulary Choice

The pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) business model relies heavily today on rebates received from drug companies in return for placement on a formulary –a list of drugs covered by a prescription benefit plan.

We have observed a change in PBMs’ approach to formulary design over the past 15 years.  Basically, “rebatable” therapeutic classes have gone from being open — a few preferred drugs — to being closed — a single preferred drug.  We are just beginning to figure out the causes of this change, but the basic idea is this:

The more a PBM limits competition in a therapeutic class, the more potential entrants will pay for access.  Small molecule therapeutic classes tend to be open, hence less valuable to entrants.  Specialty and biotech therapeutic classes tend to be closed, hence more valuable to the single favored entrant.  

Today, PBMs need to squeeze everything they can from granting access to specialty therapeutic classes.  This is the reason for the trend toward closed therapeutic classes in formularies and correspondingly more drugs on excluded lists.

Adam Fein of the Drug Channel blog has done a great job at tracking this trend. Below is his latest graph:

 

Antitrust Issues In Exclusive Formulary Contracts

Following the generally accepted theories of the late legal scholar and Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, vertical restraints such as exclusive dealing in formulary contracts are presumptively welfare-enhancing and procompetitive because it would not be rational for a buyer to exclude the lowest cost supplier.  

Exclusionary formulary contracts between Pharma and PBMs present an interesting variant to Bork’s antitrust theories as the PBM business model is not “rational” in the traditional economics sense of maximizing revenue minus costs.  

While PBMs are resellers of brand drugs, their gross profits on brand Rx are derived only from a retained rebate percentages.  CVS has stated publically  that it retains on average 10% of gross rebates negotiated and received in return for formulary placement.

In contrast to generic Rx fills by retail drugstores, PBMs do NOT markup, or earn a “spread margin” on, brand Rx ingredient costs however measured where ever filled.  A 2005 study conducted by the FTC into possible PBM conflicts of interest confirmed this business model.

The PBM business model setups up a possible misalignment of interests between plan sponsor preferences for the lowest net cost drug in a therapeutic class and PBM preferences for the drug with the highest rebate retention DOLLARS.  

With PBMs, you have to take out Bork’s “presumptive” qualifier to his dictum that vertical constraints are presumptively procompetitive because the PBM business model is not rational in the traditional economics sense.  

With antitrust cases involving PBM exclusive dealing in formulary contracts, you can’t presume anything and the rule of reason apply.  

There have been two recent lawsuits claiming that exclusive dealing in formulary contracts are anti-competitive and violate antitrust laws starting with Section 3 of Clayton Act covering exclusive dealing:

Following Bork, we believe that both of these lawsuits are weak as it is likely that the plaintiffs (the excluded) are NOT the low cost suppliers.  This likelihood is due to the fact  the plaintiffs listed their new-to-market drugs at, or slightly below, the list price of the incumbent drugs.

 Had they started out with a list prices at least 70%-80% lower than the list price of the incumbent, they might have been in a position to show that they were the lowest cost supplier of a therapeutic class and merited inclusion in the formulary. Furthermore, they would have been in a position to expose PBMs’ misaligned business model.

Unlike the two cases mentioned above,  AbbVie’s aggressive list pricing of its new-to-market HCV drug Mavyret creates a real possibility of an anti-competitive and antitrust (Section 3 Clayton Act) case of exclusive dealing due to a lack of rebate retention despite Mavyret being the lowest cost drug available in the HCV therapeutic class.

 

The Hepatitis C Virus Drug Therapeutic Class

In 2013,  the biotech company Gilead Sciences got FDA approval for its innovative Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) drug combo called Sovaldi.  Eight month later, an improved version of Sovaldi,  called Harvoni, came on the market.  These drugs produce fewer side effects than first generation combo drugs requiring painful stomach injections of interferon.  Also, Sovaldi / Harvoni only requires pill regimens lasting 12 weeks, instead of 24 to 28 weeks with prior combo drugs.  

In 2016, Gilead’s Harvoni stood at #2 on the list of top selling prescription drugs at $10 Billion a year, after AbbVie’s top selling biotech drug Humira at $13 Billion a year used to treat a variety of autoimmune diseases.

In the three years since Harvoni came on the market, there have been five additional HCV drugs approved by the FDA, but only AbbVie’s Viekira Pak has garnered any significant sales.  

The two largest PBMs CVS Caremark and Express Scripts (ESRX) have a history of making the HCV therapeutic class a “winner-take-all” proposition, persuading competing companies to choose a high list price to be in a position to offer a “deep discount” rebate to gain exclusivity in the HCV therapeutic class.  

Below is a summary of the 2017 formulary choices of CVS and ESRX for the HCV therapeutic class:  

 

AbbVie’s Mavyret Drug Pricing Is Disruptive to the PBM Business Model

On August 3, 2017, the FDA approved a new HCV drug called Mavyret from AbbVie. According the Speciality Pharmacy Times, this new drug had the potential to challenge the dominant position of Gilead’s Harvoni on two fronts: (1) a regimen requiring only 8 weeks versus 12 weeks for Harvoni; and (2) a disruptive ultra-low regimen list price of $26,400  that left little to no room for PBM rebates while still coming in at 15% below the NET price of Harvoni implying a 78% as the gross rebate percentage.

We have argued in another paper that AbbVie’s pricing for Mavyret is disruptive to the PBM business model.  It forces CVS and Express Scripts to consider a drug for inclusion in their national formularies that is aligned with their clients interests — lower net costs than Harvoni — but not aligned with their own interest of squeezing out all the rebates they can from specialty drugs.

 

Express Scripts’ Choice for the HCV Therapeutic Class

On September 15, 2017 Express Scripts announced its 2018 choices for the HCV therapeutic class.  It chose to add Mavyret as a preferred drug.  But, surprisingly, it also chose to open up completely the HCV class by adding Gilead’s existing HCV drugs.   The new Gilead combo drug Vosevi was also added with a step-therapy proviso.

Below is a comparison of Express Scripts’ closed formulary for 2017 versus its open formulary for 2018.

 

CVS Caremark’s Choice for the HCV Therapeutic Class

In August 2017, CVS Health released a white paper reiterating the criteria it uses for formulary choices and exclusion lists.

“We remove drugs only when clinically-appropriate, lower-cost (often generic) alternatives are available.

CVS stated that it expected to remove 17 products from its 2018 Standard Control Formulary, but noted that  

“We are in the process of finalizing changes for autoimmune and hepatitis C categories, which will be communicated mid-September.”

On September 28, 2018, we noted in a blog post that CVS was two weeks late in making its decision on Mavyret. We also tweeted about it to CVS.

On October 1, 2017 CVS released its drug exclusion list for 2018 with no mention of its decision on Mavyret.  Replicating its 2017 choices, CVS preferred the Gilead drugs and excluded the rest.  

Sometime after October 1, 2017 and before October 10 201,7 CVS released an “undated” Advanced Control Formulary for 2018 that indicated that it finally did decide to exclude Mayvet:

It is interesting to consider the question of why CVS chose to keep the the HCV class closed while ESRX choose to open it up.  Obviously, CVS received more from Gilead for exclusive placement of Harvoni than ESRX received in return for opening the theapeutic class and subjecting Harvoni to competition.  

A less obvious reason is that, because of CVS’s sagging “front store” drugstore convenience business, CVS has to rely on retained rebates from specialty drugs more than the pure play PBM ESRX.  This forces CVS to squeeze all the rebates it can from specialty drug companies by offering exclusivity on its formulary.  

On the other hand, ESRX’s gross profits from rebate retention do not have to subsidize low to negative gross profits from the “front stores” of vertically integrated retail drugstore chain.  ESRX can afford to be more “open” about formulary design than CVS. 

 

Was CVS’s Exclusion of Mavyret Anti-Competitive?

Based on list prices reported by Speciality Pharmacy Times and CVS’ own reported average rebate retention rate of 10%, we estimate that Gilead would have to had to offer CVS Caremark an 83% rebate off list in order for Harvoni to come in at a lower net price than Mavyret’s list price.  

If our estimate of 83% was what actually transpired, then both Gilead and CVS would have a solid case that this exclusive dealing rebate contract was procompetitive and in the best interest of plan sponsors and consumers.

 

On the other hand, our 83% estimate seems to an outlier for rebates negotiations today.

Merck has published data on average gross rebate percentages given to PBMs and others.  For 2016, Merck’s average gross rebate percent stood at 40.9%, far below our estimate of 83% that Gilead would have had to pay CVS to undercut AbbVie’s list pricing for Mavyret.   The Merck data cast doubt on the likelihood that Gilead would given anywhere near 83% rebate.

If the gross rebate was slightly less, say 75%, then Mavyret would be the low cost drug.

In this case, the Bork presumption of the pro-competitiveness of vertical restraints breaks down. Here a “rational” PBM buyer would exclude the low cost supplier because of a misaligned business model based on retained rebates. A buyer with a normal reseller business model would NOT have excluded Mavyret.

We call on CVS Caremark to issue a public statement confirming that its choice to exclude Mavyret was in the best interest of clients because Harvoni was the lower cost drug after rebates.

While there is no prize for second place here, we all benefit from AbbVie’s competitive effort.  It’s aggressive pricing has forced PBMs to consider a low cost specialty drug that offers no rebate potential.  If Gilead’s Harvoni was in fact the low cost drug, then AbbVie forced Gilead to pay an outlier gross rebate percentage of around 83% to gain exclusivity and plan sponsors using CVS as their PBM all benefited.

In addition, AbbVie’s aggressive pricing was likely a factor in Merck and Johnson & Johnson  deciding to halt wasteful R&D spending on “me-to” HCV drugs.  Merck said that it would be writing off a full $2.9 Billion in HVC R&D “due to competition.”   

Finally, while AbbVie’s aggressive list pricing might not have been enough to undercut Gilead’s outsized rebate offer, we believe AbbVie might have planted the seed in other specialty drug companies, especially ones with biosimilars in development,  that you cannot beat out incumbents by matching their high list prices and out rebating them for formulary placement.  

 


Hepatitis C Formulary Choices for 2018: Will CVS Risk Looking Bad?

Summary:

AbbVie’s aggressive list pricing for its new Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) drug Mavyret is disruptive to the current PBM business model.  It essentially asks PBMs to align with client interests by adding a cost-effective drug to their national formularies despite little to no possibility for retained rebates.

On September 15, 2017 Express Scripts (ESRX) chose to align with client interests by opening up the HCV therapeutic class to include Mavyret as well as other HCV drugs previously excluded.  

CVS Caremark has yet to announce its final choices for the HVC class despite promising that it would do so by mid-September 2017.

If CVS chooses not to add Mavyret, it will be a sign that CVS is so desperate for rebate income that it is willing incur a very public case of misaligned interests.

 

The Pharmacy Benefit Manager Business Model

The management of the prescription (Rx) drug benefit portion of health care plans has become the domain of contracted specialists called pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs).

The three largest, independent PBMs — Express Scripts, CVS Caremark,  and OptumRx,  (known as “The Big 3”) control 73% of the total Rx claims processed the United States in 2015.

Since the early 2000s, PBMs have continually come under attack for not acting in the best interest of their clients.  We have written a number of papers since 2004 pinpointing an opaque reseller business model as the source of this misalignment.

In a 2017 paper, we presented the case that there have been 3 distinct phases of the PBM business model over the past 15 years demarcated by radical shifts in the primary source of gross profits: (graph below)

  1. up to 2005 — reliance on retained rebates from small molecule brand drugs;  
  2. 2005 – 2010 — reliance on mail order generics Rx margins;
  3. 2010 – today — reliance on retained rebates from specialty drugs.

To compensate for declining mail order generic Rx margins after 2010, PBMs saw the rising trend of specialty and biotech drugs as a promising basis for a renewed reliance on retained rebates.

But there are several constraints today that make it difficult to rely on retained rebates from specialty drugs.

The first constraint in that the specialty drug Rx volume “basis” for collecting rebates today is a lot less than it was ten years ago when small molecule drugs were the basis for rebates.

The second constraint is a newfound awareness by clients that retained rebate dollars can be substantial yet an opaque source of PBM gross profits.   As a defensive move, CVS  finally declared publicly on their website that,

“CVS Caremark was able to reduce trend for clients through… negotiations of rebates, of which more than 90 percent are passed back to clients.”

The problem facing PBMs today is how to derive a majority of gross profits from specialty Rx while maintaining a transparent rebate retention rate of 10% on average.

We found that to do this required PBMs to “coax” drug companies into increasing list prices for brand drugs at double-digit rates yearly while demanding that nearly all of it be rebated back to the PBMs. The result of this scheme has been an occurrence now known as the “gross-to-net price bubble.”

Formulary Choice and Drugs Rebates

An important managed care function of PBMs is to develop a list of drugs that are covered by insurance.  That list of covered drugs is called a formulary.  

The formulary is a lookup table that PBMs add to their claims processing systems that checks a Rx request against a list of therapeutic equivalents preferred by the plan.  The formulary is designed to limit Rx to the most cost-effective drug(s) in each of 50-80 different therapeutic classes.  

In 2005, we were the first to conceptualize formularies and their therapeutic classes as a group of markets.  On the sell-side are brand drug companies with close, but not perfect substitutes, called therapeutic equivalents.  On the buy-side are the Big 3 PBMs representing plan sponsors and their members.

Economists call such markets bilateral oligopolies.  We have written a number of papers  about the Pharma – PBM bilateral oligopoly. We have also written a number of papers conceptualizing rebates as tariffs paid by Pharma to gatekeepers (PBMs) for access to markets with limited competition.  

We have observed a change in PBMs’ approach to formulary choice over the past 15 years.  Basically, “rebatable” therapeutic classes have gone from being open — a number of covered drugs — to being closed —  1-2 covered drugs. The corollary of this trend is a growing list of excluded drugs.

Adam Fein of the Drug Channels blog has done a great job at tracking this trend. Below is his latest graph:

 

We are just beginning to think about the causes of this trend.  But our basic view of what drives PBMs to choose open versus closed therapeutic classes is this:

The more a PBMs limits competition in a therapeutic class, the more potential entrants will pay for access.  Small molecule therapeutic classes tend to be open, hence less valuable to entrants.  Specialty and biotech therapeutic classes tend to be closed, hence more valuable to the single favored entrant.  

Today, PBMs need to squeeze everything they can from granting access to specialty therapeutic classes.  This is the reason for the trend toward closed formularies and correspondingly more drugs on excluded lists.   

 

The Hepatitis C Virus Drug Therapeutic Class

In 2013,  the biotech company Gilead Sciences got FDA approval for its “innovative” Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) drug combo called Sovaldi.  Eight month later, an improved version of Sovaldi,  called Harvoni, came on the market.  These drugs produced fewer side effects than first generation combo drugs requiring interferon.  Also, Sovaldi / Harvoni only required regimens lasting 12 weeks, instead of 24 to 28 weeks with prior combo drugs.  

In 2016, Gilead’s Harvoni stood at #2 on the list of top selling Rx drugs at $10.0 Billion a year.  In the three years since Harvoni came on there market, there have been 9 additional HCV drugs approved by the FDA, but only AbbVie’s Viekira Pak has garnered any significant sales to date.  

The main reason is that the two largest PBMs — CVS Caremark and Express Scripts  — chose to close the HCV therapeutic class to all but two drugs that cover all six HCV genotypes.  (see table for 2017 below)

Source: CVS Caremark Formulary 2017

Source: CVS Caremark Formulary Exclusion List 2017

Source: Express Scripts Formulary and Exclusion List 2017

 

Factors Underlying Formulary Choice

The question is what were the determining factors underlying the formulary choices above.  Also, given the opaqueness of the PBM business model and history of misalignment with client interests,  were the above choices aligned or misaligned with client interests?

PBMs all state on their websites that the fundamental criteria governing formulary choice is drug cost-effectiveness.  In the case above, a few of the nine HCV drugs may be less effective than the leader Harvoni,  but effectiveness cannot account for breadth of formulary exclusion above.  

The most important variable affecting HCV formulary choice above is on the cost side.  Specifically it is NET costs — Pharma’s list price less gross rebates negotiated between Pharma and PBMs — that is the determining factor.

A conflict of interest can arise if there are several therapeutic equivalents that are all cost-effective, but there is one drug with a list price so low that it affords PBMs little to no retained rebates.  

Consider this hypothetical choice below:

Until AbbVie’s aggressive list pricing of Mavyret appeared in August 2017 (see below), the regimen list price of all of HCV drugs was about the same.  Unlike the example above, formulary choice for the HCV class did not present a potential conflict of interest prior to AbbVie’s pricing of Mavyret.  

The choices made by ESRX and CVS in 2017 highlighted above are aligned with interests of clients.   The only question for us is why did the two PBMs choose to close the therapeutic class?

We think the reason comes down to the specific rebate formulas used in rebate contracts —  a top secret element in a generally opaque PBM business model.

We speculate that the formula for placement as a preferred drug could take several general forms:

  1. $ discount / unit;
  2. % price discount / unit;
  3. single lump sum in $ tens of millions as a function of market share delivered.

We think that behind closed therapeutic classes are contracts with large lump sum payouts as a function of market share.  We think that behind open therapeutic classes are dollar or % discount formula with no incentives / penalties for market share delivered.

One of the reasons why PBMs want to keep rebate formulas a secret is that such formulas have been a key element in antitrust lawsuits alleging that market share rebates foreclose competition.

 

AbbVie’s Mavyret Drug Pricing Is Disruptive to the PBM Business Model

On August 3, 2017, the FDA approved a new HCV drug call Mavyret from AbbVie. According the Speciality Pharmacy Times, this new drug has the potential to challenge the dominant position of Gilead’s Harvoni on two fronts: (1) a regimen requiring only 8 weeks versus 12 weeks for Harvoni; and (2) a disruptive ultra-low regimen list price that leaves little to no room for PBM rebates.  

Below is our spreadsheet comparison of the NET REGIMEN for Mavyret versus Harvoni:

AbbVie’s pricing for Mavyret is disruptive to the current PBM business model because it forces the Big 3 PBMs to consider a drug for inclusion in their national formularies that is aligned with client interests — as cost-effective than Harvoni — but not aligned with their own interest of squeezing out all the rebates they can from specialty drugs.

On July 31, 2017,Express Scripts released its 2018 National Formulary, but noted:

“Please note that product placement for Hepatitis C and treatment for Inflammatory Conditions are under consideration and changes may occur based upon changes in market dynamics and new product launches. The full list of excluded products will be available on or before September 15, 2017.”

As promised, on September 15th Express Scripts released its choices for HCV class.  It chose to add AbbVie’s Mavyret even though the pricing afforded them little to no rebates potential.  

This choice represents a clear statement by Express Scripts that it is aligned with client interests.

Surprising to us was that Express Scripts also chose to open up the HCV class to 3 other drugs as indicated in the table below.

Source: Express Scripts Formulary and Exclusion List 2017

Source: Express Scripts Formulary and Exclusion List 2018

We believe that underlying the decision to an open therapeutic class is the replacement of a large lump sum rebate predicated on market share to a simple linear rebate as a function of volume.

CVS Health has yet to announce its final choices for the HVC class despite promising that it would do so by mid-September 2017.

If CVS chooses not to add Mavyret, it will be a sign that CVS is so desperate for rebate income that it is willing incur a very public case of misaligned interests.

Postscript added October 17, 2017

Summary

In October 2017, CVS Caremark (CVS) finally decided to  exclude from its 2018 drug formulary the new-to-market Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) drug Mavyret despite it being list priced aggressively by its manufacturer AbbVie at an estimated 72% below the list price of Gilead Sciences’ incumbent HCV drug Harvoni.

We estimate that Gilead Sciences had to offer CVS a minimum of a 83% rebate percentage in order for Harvoni to have a net price below Mavyret’s list price.  The 83% figure would represent an outlier in reported gross rebate percentages today that generally fall in the 40% to 60% range.

If it turns out that the rebate percentage was less, it sets up an anti-competitive and antitrust case that Mavyret was excluded because of lack of pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) rebate retention despite being the lowest cost drug in the HCV therapeutic class.

We call on CVS Caremark to issue a public statement confirming that its choice to exclude Mavyret was in the best interest of clients because Harvoni was the lower cost drug after rebates.


AbbVie’s Mavyret Drug Pricing: Disruptive to the Pharmacy Benefit Manager Business Model

Summary:

AbbVie’s pricing for its new Hepatitis C Virus (HVC) drug Mavyret is disruptive to the current PBM business model because it forces the Big 3 PBMs to consider a drug for inclusion in their national formularies that is aligned with their clients interests — more cost-effective than Harvoni — but not aligned with their own interest of squeezing out all the rebates they can from specialty drug manufacturers.

Will PBMs open up the HCV therapeutic class and include Mavyret?

Or, will they expose themselves to claims of misalignment by excluding AbbVie’s Mavyret?

Stay tuned.

The PBM Business Model Today

The management of the prescription (Rx) drug benefit portion of health care plans has become the domain of contracted specialists called pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs).

The three largest, independent PBMs — Express Scripts, CVS Health,  and Optum Rx, (known as “The Big 3”) control 73% of the total Rx claims processed the United States in 2015.

Since the early 2000s, PBMs have continually come under attack for not acting in the best interest of their clients.  We have written a number of papers since 2004 pinpointing an opaque reseller business model as the source of this misalignment.

In a 2017 paper, we presented the case that there have been 3 distinct phases of the PBM business model over the past 15 years demarcated by radical shifts in the primary source of gross profits: (graph below)

  1. up to 2005 — reliance on retained rebates from small molecule brand drugs;  
  2. 2005 – 2010 — reliance on mail order generics Rx margins;
  3. 2010 – today — reliance on retained rebates from specialty drugs.

To compensate for declining mail order generics Rx margins after 2010, PBMs saw the rising trend of specialty and biotech drugs as a promising basis for a renewed reliance on retained rebates.

But there are several constraints today on this phase of the PBM business model.

The first constraint in that the specialty drug Rx volume “basis” for collecting rebates today is a lot less than it was ten years ago when small molecule drugs were the basis for rebates.

The second constraint is a newfound awareness by clients that retained rebate dollars can be substantial yet an opaque source of PBM gross profits.   As a defensive move, CVS Health finally declared publicly on their website that,

“CVS Caremark was able to reduce trend for clients through… negotiations of rebates, of which more than 90 percent are passed back to clients.”

The problem facing PBMs today is how to derive a majority of gross profits from specialty Rx while maintaining a transparent rebate retention rate of 10% on average.

Using data supplied by the drug company Merck, we reconstructed a step-by-step sequence of how PBMs and drug companies might negotiate the parameters of a rebate deal under the triple constraints of (1) Pharma’s net prices must grow; (2)  PBMs retained rebate gross profit DOLLARS must grow; and (3) PBM rebate retention rate must be fixed at 10%.  

We found that to do this required PBMs to “coax” drug companies into increasing list prices for brand drugs at double-digit rates yearly while demanding that nearly all of it be rebated back to the PBMs. The result of this scheme is an occurrence now known as the “gross-to-net price bubble.”  Below is a graph of the phenomenon using data supplied by Merck:

PBMs and Formulary Choice

As we said in the prior section, the PBM business model relies heavily today on rebates received from drug companies in return for placement on a list of drugs covered by a Rx benefit plan.  That list of covered drugs is called a formulary.  

The formulary is a lookup table that PBMs add to their claims processing systems that checks a Rx request against a list of therapeutic equivalents preferred by PBMs and rubber-stamped by plans.  The formulary is designed to limit Rx to the most cost-effective drug(s) in each of 50-80 different therapeutic classes.  

In 2005, we were the first to conceptualize formularies and their 50-80 therapeutic classes as a group of markets.  On the sell-side are brand drug companies with close, but not perfect substitutes, called therapeutic equivalents.  On the buy-side are the Big 3 PBMs representing plan sponsors and their members.

Economists call such markets bilateral oligopolies.  We have written a number of papers about the Pharma – PBM bilateral oligopoly available for download free on our website.

Rebates are essentially tariffs paid by drug companies to gatekeepers (PBMs) for access to markets with limited competition. We have presented that case that the most “rebatable” brand drugs fall in oligopolistic therapeutic classes featuring a small number of patented drugs that are therapeutic equivalents.  

Over time, “me too” drugs enter and older drugs lose patent protection opening the door to generics or biosimilars.  The therapeutic class becomes competitive and no manufacturer has any wiggle room left to negotiate price reductions with PBMs.

We have observed a change in PBMs’ approach to formulary design over the past 15 years.  Basically, “rebatable” therapeutic classes have gone from being open — a few approved drugs — to being closed — a single approved drug.  We are just beginning to figure out the causes of this change.  

But our basic view of what drives PBMs to choose  open versus closed therapeutic classes is this:

The more a PBMs limits competition in a therapeutic class, the more potential entrants will pay for access.  Small molecule therapeutic classes tend to be open, hence less valuable to entrants.  Specialty and biotech therapeutic classes tend to be closed, hence more valuable to the single favored entrant.  

Today, PBMs need to squeeze everything they can from granting access to specialty therapeutic classes.  This is the reason for the trend toward closed formularies and correspondingly more drugs on excluded lists.   

The Hepatitis C Virus Drug Therapeutic Class

In 2013,  the biotech company Gilead Sciences got FDA approval for its “innovative” Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) drug combo called Sovaldi.  Eight month later, an improved version of Sovaldi,  called Harvoni, came on the market.  These drugs produced fewer side effects than first generation combo drugs requiring interferon.  Also, Sovaldi / Harvoni only required regimens lasting 12 weeks, instead of 24 to 28 weeks with prior combo drugs.  

In 2016, Gilead’s Harvoni stood at #2 on the list of top selling Rx drugs at $10.0 Billion a year, after AbbVie’s top selling biotech drug Humira at $12.9 Billion used to treat a variety of autoimmune diseases.

In the three years since Harvoni came on there market, there have been 5 additional HCV drugs approved by the FDA, but only AbbVie’s Viekira Pak has garnered any significant sales.  

The reason has been that the Big 3 PBMs have decided the make the HCV therapeutic class a “winner-take-all” proposition, coaxing competing companies to choose a high list price to be in a position to offer PBMs  a “deep discount” rebate reaching 70% to 80% of list price to gain exclusivity in the HCV therapeutic class.  Below is a summary of the formulary choices of Big 3 PBMs and Prime Therapeutics for the HCV therapeutic class for 2017.   

Gilead has secured exclusive preferred status for Harvoni with CVS Health, OptumRx and Prime Therapeutics. AbbVie has secured exclusive status for Viekira Pak with Express Scripts.   

All of these choices are aligned with plan interests of having the most cost-effective drug included in the formulary.  All choices are also aligned with PBMs’ interest of securing the most rebate DOLLARS.

Harvoni and Viekira Pak are both about equally effective so rebates become the determining factor for cost-effectiveness.  For CVS Health, OptumRx and Prime Therapeutics, Gilead’s Harvoni is more cost-effective choice because Gilead’s rebate offer was greater than AbbVie’s.

For Express Scripts, Viekira Pak is the most cost-effect choice because AbbVie’s rebate offer was greater than Gilead’s whose bid might have been constrained due to a depleted budget after all the other wins.   

AbbVie’s Mavyret Drug Pricing Is Disruptive to the PBM Business Model

On August 3, 2017, the FDA approved a new HCV drug call Mavyret from AbbVie. According the Speciality Pharmacy Times, this new drug has the potential to challenge the dominant position of Gilead’s Harvoni on two fronts: (1) a regimen requiring only 8 weeks versus 12 weeks for Harvoni; and (2) a disruptive ultra-low regimen list price that leaves little to no room for PBM rebates.  

Below is our spreadsheet comparison of the NET REGIMEN for Mavyret versus Harvoni:

AbbVie’s pricing for Mavyret is disruptive to the current PBM business model because it forces the Big 3 PBMs to consider a drug for inclusion in their national formularies that is aligned with their clients interests — more cost-effective than Harvoni — but not aligned with their own interest of squeezing out all the rebates they can from specialty drugs.

On July 31, 2017,Express Scripts released its 2018 National Formulary, but noted:

“Please note that product placement for Hepatitis C and treatment for Inflammatory Conditions are under consideration and changes may occur based upon changes in market dynamics and new product launches. The full list of excluded products will be available on or before September 15, 2017.”

In August 2017, CVS Health released a white paper outlining the criteria it uses for formulary choices and exclusion lists. It stated that in January 1, 2018,  it expects to remove 17 products from their Standard Control Formulary in 10 drug classes, but noted that  

“We are in the process of finalizing changes for autoimmune and hepatitis C categories, which will be communicated mid-September.”

Will the PBMs open up the HCV therapeutic class and add Mavyret?  

Or, will they expose themselves to claims of misalignment by excluding AbbVie’s Mavyret?

Stay tuned.

Postscript added October 17, 2017

Was CVS’s Formulary Exclusion of Mavyret a Violation of Antitrust Laws?


Merck Data Discredits PBM-Sponsored Study of Brand Drug Price Inflation

Summary

We present data supplied by the drug company Merck that discredits a study sponsored by the pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) trade association showing no correlation between PBM rebate rates and brand drug price inflation.

Introduction

The management of the prescription (Rx) drug benefit portion of health care plans has become the domain of contracted specialists called pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs).

The three largest, independent PBMs — Express Scripts, CVS Health,  and Optum Rx, (known as “The Big 3”) control 73% of the total Rx claims processed the United States in 2015.

Since the early 2000s, PBMs have continually come under attack for not acting in the best interest of their clients.  We have written a number of papers since 2004 pinpointing an opaque reseller business model as the source of this misalignment.

In a 2017 paper, we have presented the case that there have been 3 distinct phases of the PBM business model over the past 15 years demarcated by radical shifts in the primary source of gross profits:

  1. up to 2005 — reliance on retained rebates from small molecule brand drugs;  
  2. 2005 – 2010 — reliance on mail order generics Rx margins;
  3. 2010 – today — reliance on retained rebates from specialty drugs.

To compensate for declining mail order generics Rx margins after 2010, PBMs saw the rising trend of specialty and biotech drugs as a promising basis for a renewed reliance on retained rebates.

But there are several constraints today on this phase of the PBM business model.

The first constraint in that the specialty drug Rx volume “basis” for collecting rebates today is a lot less than it was ten years ago when small molecule drugs were the basis for rebates.

The second constraint is a newfound awareness by clients of PBMs that retained rebate dollars can be substantial yet an opaque source of PBM gross profits.   As a defensive move, CVS Health finally declared publicly on their website that,

“CVS Caremark was able to reduce trend for clients through… negotiations of rebates, of which more than 90 percent are passed back to clients.”

The problem facing PBMs today is how to derive a majority of gross profits from specialty Rx while maintaining a transparent rebate retention rate at 10% on average.

In order to show how PBMs can overcome these constraints,  we have deconstructed data supplied by the drug company Merck (see below) that depicts a growing a divergence between their list prices for brand drugs (gross) and the prices they receive after deductions of rebates paid to PBMs (net).

This growing divergence has come to be known as   “gross-to-net rebate bubble”   Other drug companies are publishing similar data as a way of defending themselves against charges of double-digit price-gouging tactics.

This is a graphic depiction of Merck’s gross-to-net price bubble:

Our deconstruction of the Merck data lays out a step-by-step sequence of how PBMs and drug companies might negotiate the parameters of a rebate deal today under the constraint that PBMs have to grow gross profit DOLLARS over time while fixing the rebate retention rate at 10%.

We can use the same Merck-supplied data to plot annual % increases in list prices (line 1 above) against the annual negotiated rebates and discounts as a % of the list prices (line 3 above).  The result shows a significant positive correlation coefficient ratio of .653

PBMs Under Attack for Causing Drug Price Inflation

In January, 2017 newly elected President Donald Trump attacked drug companies in press conference for “getting away with murder” by raising drug prices at double-digit rates in recent years.

Since the Trump rant,  there have been articles in the New York Time, the Los Angeles Times and other publication where both retail pharmacists and drug companies are quoted as saying it is PBMs that drive drug price inflation.  Here is a quote from the New York Time article,

“Want to reduce prescription drug costs?” the pharmacists argued during their visits. “Pay attention to the middlemen.”

The PBM-Sponsored Study

The PBM trade group association Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (PCMA) commissioned a study by the health care consulting company Visante to provide data relevant to the issue of the causes of recent drug price inflation.  

In April 2017, the PCMA announced in a press release that results of the Visante study were available on-line.  The key result:

“There is no correlation between the prices drug companies set and the rebates they negotiate with PBMs”

The press release also provided a quote by PCMA President and CEO Mark Merritt:

“This study debunks the notion that the prices drugmakers set are contingent on the rebates they negotiate with PBMs…”

Below is a screenshot of the graph depicting the finding of “no correlation”

Reconciling Differences in Results: A Question of Sample Chosen

The Merck data shows a significant positive correlation between annual brand drug list price inflation and annual rebates rates that Merck has negotiated with PBMs.  The PBM-sponsored study shows no correlation.

Obviously, a key reconciling difference revolves around the sample chosen.  

The Merck results are heavily weighted by three brand drugs.  Merck has reported In its 2017 annual 10-K report that about one-third of its drug sales comes from three brand drugs: (1) the diabetes drug Januvia; (2) the cholesterol drug combinations Zetia/Vytorin; and (3) the cervical cancer prevention vaccine Gardasil.  

In terms of rank among the top 200 selling brand drugs, Januvia ranked #19, Zetia #38, and Gardasil #56 according to a 2015 listing.

Each of these drugs are what we call highly “rebatable” — in therapeutic classes where there are a number of other brand that are therapeutically equivalent.  

Merck competes vigorously with other drug companies for preferred status on formularies which list drugs approved by PBMs for coverage.  Competition insures that winning bids are high for placement in these therapeutic classes.  Merck has to “pay to play” and covers higher and higher rebate percentages paid to PBMs with list price inflation.

To achieve such high rankings,  it means that Merck must be winning placement for its top selling drugs with each of the Big 3 PBMs who control collectively 73% of the market.

While Merck’s sample size is small compared to the PBM-sponsored study, Merck’s data represents the essence of what has been going on between Pharma and Big 3 PBMs since 2010.

The sample size of the PBM-sponsored study is much larger. It contained a

“sample of the top 200 self-administered, patent protected, brand-name drugs, 24 drugs were excluded because of incomplete data for the study time period, leaving a remaining sample of 176 drugs for analysis”.

First, the initial sample size of 176 was aggregated in 23 therapeutic classes with the averages used in plots.  No mention is made as to whether the 23 data points represent simple or averages weighted by revenue.  In any case, samples of averages smooth out differences in the raw data.

Second, the larger sample size could contain significant number of drugs that just are not “rebatable” — in “aging” therapeutic classes with a 4+ brand drugs that are therapeutically equivalent (“me-too drugs”) plus a number of off-patent, low cost generic drugs.

In short, we believe that the sample used in the PBM-sponsored study is a smoothed-out representation of the outcomes of negotiations between drug companies with “rebatable” brand drugs and the Big 3 PBMs.

 


Blame Pharmacy Benefit Managers (Not Pharma) For Driving Drug Price Inflation

Summary:

We start with a review of the history of the opaque pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) reseller business model. We present our prior estimates of the distribution of PBM gross profits over the past decade showing that they have become dependent today on retained rebates from specialty drugs.

Next, we present numbers showing how PBMs today have painted themselves into a corner with a relatively small basis for drug rebates coupled with promises to hold their overall average rebate retention rate, a term we coined in 2003, to a “reasonable” 10%.

We conclude the paper with a deconstruction of the growing divergence between brand drug list prices (gross) and the prices Pharma actually receive after PBM rebates (net) — the so-called “gross-to-net price bubble”.  We use data supplied by the drug company Merck to go through a step-by-step sequence of how PBMs and drug companies might negotiate the parameters of a rebate deal today under the constraint that PBMs have to grow gross profit DOLLARS over time while fixing the rebate retention rate at 10%.  

We show that the outcome of such constrained negotiations produces a gross-to-net price bubble.

The “Gross-To-Net Price Bubble”

Before 2017, there had been two well-publicized exposes of massive increases in the list price of off-patented brand drugs that were rubber-stamped by pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs).  This included Mylan’s EpiPen and Martin Shkreli and his Turning Pharmaceutical’s HIV drug Daraprim.

There are now numerous reports providing quantitative evidence of outrageous increases in specialty brand drugs list prices over the past 5 year.  For example, consider this table of list price inflation between 2012-7 of Multiple Sclerosis drugs taken from Congressman Michael Vounatsos’ request to manufacturers for more information:

In April 2017, Adam Fein first reported on his blog Drug Channels that the health information company QuintilesIMS had just published  aggregate trend data for brand name drug prices before (gross) and AFTER rebates (net) had been paid to pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs).

The data showed  two trends beginning in 2011: (1) gross prices were growing faster than net prices; (2) the divergence itself was growing.

Dr. Fein coined the term “gross-to-net rebate bubble” to describe (2) above, which has become the standard lexicon for the phenomena. Below is graph summarizing QuintilesIMS latest findings taken from an April 2017 blog post by Dr. Fein:

The PBM Business Model:  2005 – 2010

In an earlier 2017 paper, we presented the case that there has been three distinct phases of the pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) business model over the past 15 years. Each has been demarcated by radical shifts in their primary source of gross profits:

  1. up to 2005 — reliance on retained rebates from small molecule brand drugs;  
  2. 2005 – 2010 — reliance on mail order generic Rx margins;
  3. 2010 – today — reliance on retained rebates from specialty drugs.

Below is graph of our estimates of the distribution of PBM gross profits over the past 15 years.

The majority of PBMs gross profits between 2005 – 2010 came from mail order generic Rx.   The Big 3 PBMs devised a strategy of tacitly colluding with their counterpart Big 3 retail pharmacies — Walgreen, CVS, and Rite-Aid — to hold up margins on generic Rx fills.  

Essentially the Big 3 PBMs have the power to set their competitors’ prices, an anti-competitive weapon if there ever was one.   PBMs gave retailers fat margins for 30-day generics in return for promises not to compete on 90-day Rx.  Then, PBMs set the prices of generic Rx filled by captive mail order operations slightly less than retail to give the appearance of alignment with client interests.  But, the supply chain hold up still allowed for fat mail order generic Rx margins.

The first blow to this scheme came in late 2006 when Walmart saw the fat retail margins and began a disruptive  $4 / generic Rx campaign. They could do this as an “outsider” retailer because their business model wasn’t dependent on fat pharmacy margins subsidizing the rest of the store.

The final blow to this “hold-up” scheme came around 2008 several years after the vertical merger of the pharmacy retailer CVS and the PBM Caremark.   Consistent with the business model of the merged company, CVS-Caremark began offering preferred provider pharmacy networks featuring lower  unit prices at retail in return for Rx volume.  

While this managed care technique is used successfully in reducing hospital and physician costs, it has never really been instituted by PBMs prior to the CVS-Caremark merger.  This absence had been an obvious sign to us at the time of tacit collusion between the Big 3 retail pharmacies and the Big 3 PBMs.

The PBM Business Model: 2010 – today

To compensate for declining mail order generic margins after 2010, PBMs saw the rising trend of specialty and biotech drugs as a promising basis for a renewed reliance on retained rebates.

But there were several problems with the goal of deriving a majority of gross profits from specialty drug rebates.    Reconstructing how PBMs solved these problems is the key to understand why PBMs, not Pharma, drive the gross-to-net drug price bubble today.

First, assume that since 2010, the Big 3 PBMs needed additional gross profits each year from specialty drug retained rebates to replace incremental losses in margins from mail order generics Rx.

This creates a problem in that the specialty drug Rx volume “basis” for collecting rebates today is a lot less than it was ten years ago when small molecule drugs were the basis for rebates.  How much less?  The Pew Charitable Trust Foundation sponsored a study which found that in 2015 special Rx comprised only 1% of total Rx.  

A decade ago, we estimated that about 20% of total Rx filled were “rebatable” brand drugs, i.e. in therapeutic classes with a few other brand drugs that were therapeutic equivalents.  So instead of 1:100 specialty Rx to total Rx basis differential, we arrive at a 1:20 “rebatable” specialty drug Rx to “rebatable” small molecule brand drug Rx basis differential.

In other words,  ten years ago PBMs has 20 times the volume of Rx available to them to use as a basis for generating retained rebates as they do today.

The second constraint that PBMs have today is an awareness by their clients that retained rebate dollars can be a substantial yet opaque source of PBM gross profits.    

Today,  there seems to be an order of magnitude more articles critical of PBMs in general, and retained rebates specifically,  As a defensive move, CVS Health finally declared publicly on its website that,

“CVS Caremark was able to reduce trend for clients through… negotiation of rebates, of which more than 90 percent are passed back to clients.”

The problem facing PBMs today is how to derive a majority of gross profits from specialty Rx while maintaining a transparent rebate retention rate at 10% on average.

The business model of the drug companies is simple and stable by comparison.  Sure, drug companies want to maximize profits just like the PBMs.  But drug companies are not constrained as much as the Big 3 PBMs and don’t need a convoluted gross-to-net price scheme to achieve their targets.

It is important to remember that it takes two parties to negotiate drug rebate deals. Drug companies have some power in determining how these deals are structured, especially if there are only one or two other brands drugs that are therapeutic equivalents.

The Big 3 PBMs today have a lot of power in rebate negotiations.  Drug companies have a lot to lose if negotiations fall through.  Exclusion of a single drug from one of Big 3 PBMs’ national lists of drugs covered by an insurance plan  — called formularies — can cost a widely-used or expensive drug $1+ Billion dollars in lost revenue.

It is the Big 3 PBMs who drive schemes involving high-list-price / high-rebate specialty drug deals.  For now, drug companies are accomplices along for the ride. They are culpable, but much less so than PBMs. 

This analysis has relevance to RICO cases in at least three areas:

  • the  “proximate cause” of damages : Pharma, PBMs, and/or plan sponsors?
  • the “association-in-fact” enterprises — horizontal, vertical, or both?
  • the  very question of conspiracy — a cooperative vs non-cooperative game?

For example, assuming this is a racket, we would argue that PBMs are the “capos” and drug companies are the flunkies.  And what about plan sponsors, including the Federal, state and local governments?

Aren’t plan sponsors, not PBMs, directly responsible for setting copayment or coinsurance?     We addressed this question 12 years ago in our 2005 letter published by the Journal of Managed Care Pharmacy called The Role of Pharmacy Benefits Managers in Formulary Design: Service Providers or Fiduciaries? 

So, why don’t RICO lawyers go after the Feds with their donut hole concoction?  Well, RICO lawyers are calculating types and their cost-benefit calculations point to flunkies, not “capos”, and surely not the Feds, are the most likely to “cop a plea” here.

(Note: see a detailed follow-up article written in January, 2018 called Insulin Drug Price Inflation: Racketeering or Perverse Competition? )

A Deconstruction of Merck’s Gross-to-Net Drug Price Bubble

We conclude the paper with a deconstruction of the growing divergence between brand drug list prices (gross) and the prices Pharma actually receive after PBM rebates (net) — the so-called “gross-to-net price bubble”.  We use data supplied by the drug company Merck to go through a step-by-step sequence of how PBMs and drug companies might negotiate the parameters of a rebate deal today under the constraint that PBMs have to grow gross profit DOLLARS over time while fixing the rebate retention rate at 10%.

We show that the outcome of such constrained negotiations reproduces produces a gross-to-net price bubble.

Below is a screenshot from a Merck memo laying out for all to see their “gross-to-net drug price bubble”.  Other drug companies are publishing similar data as a way of defending themselves against charges of “double-digit” price-gouging tactics.

This is a graphic depiction of Merck’s gross-to-net price bubble:

Below we build a spreadsheet which “deconstructs” Merck’s bubble for a hypothetical specialty drug.  It  shows how PBMs can grow retained rebates dollars via a combination of growing rebate percentages while maintaining a retention rate fixed at 10%.

A larger view of the spreadsheet above:

 

Note that despite being constrained to a 10% rebate retention rate, this deal scheme give PBMs yearly retained rebate DOLLARS that are 176% greater that what they received 6 years earlier.

Some have predicted that the divergence between gross and net prices will level off after 2017.

We tend to agree with that prediction as the current bubble was fueled by PBMs’ need to REPLACE a declining trend in gross profits from mail order generic Rx.  With that loss fully offset, PBMs could grow gross profits in the future by maintain a steady divergence between list prices and net prices.


Three Phases of the Pharmacy Benefit Manager Business Model

We present the case that there has been three distinct phases of the pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) business model over the past 15 years. Each phase has been demarcated by a major shift in the dominant source of gross profits.

These radical shifts in the primary source of gross profits in such a short period of time is unprecedented among Fortune 50 companies.  This is indicative of the opaqueness of the PBM business model to their downstream customers — health care plan sponsors.  

It is also indicative of PBMs’ relative power to negotiate rapid changes in payment streams from upstream suppliers — the Big 3 retail pharmacies and drug companies.   These upstream suppliers and the Big 3 PBMs make up two sides of intermediate market bilateral oligopolies.

It is instructive to understand why PBMs had to recalibrate their business model twice now in the last 15 years.  In today’s terminology,  what “disrupted” this powerful cartel? Our examination of recent history suggests that  government regulations and lawsuits have had little impact on PBM decisions to change their business model.  

Rather, our view is that the disruptors have been “rent-seekers” whose business models were not in alignment with the rest of the cartel.  This included the emergence of a vertically integrated PBM in the form of CVS-Caremark and the powerful outsider Walmart with a business model that allowed for the retail pharmacy to be a “loss-leader”.

Below is a spreadsheet which summarizes the data sources for our estimation of distribution of PBM gross profits over the past 15 years.

Below is a graph of our estimates of PBM gross profits share by source over the past 15 years indicating that there have been 3 distinct periods where a different source dominated.

In support of our contention of the replacement of lost margins on mail order generics with retained rebates after 2010, we present data assembled by Adam Fein  estimating total rebates to PBMs and discounts to drug distributors between 2007 – 2016.   Note that the total increases was 126% between 2010 and 2016.

 

The Pharmacy Benefit Management Business

PBMs provide a bundle of managed care services designed to provide a cost-effective prescription (Rx) drug benefit to plan sponsors and their members.  The PBM bundle includes the following list of services:  

  1. create a retail preferred provider pharmacy network and negotiate brand and generic Rx reimbursements;
  2. provide 90-day Rx exclusively from captive mail order pharmacies;  
  3. provide specialty (high priced and biotech) drugs Rx from captive specialty pharmacies;
  4. create a formulary — a look up table that restricts fills to preferred drugs — and negotiate rebates with Pharma in return for placement;
  5. provide other Rx cost-saving measures such as prior authorization, step-therapy, quantity limits, and co-pays.   

Concentration in the PBM Business

The three largest PBMs today — Express Scripts, CVS Health,  and Optum Rx, (known as “The Big 3”) control 73% of the total Rx claims processed the United State in 2015.  

Prior to 2013, the Big 3 PBMs were Express Scripts, Medco, and Caremark with a combined concentration similar to today.  The concentration in the PBM industry today has been the result of a series of horizontal mergers mistakenly approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In 2004, there was a horizontal merger between #3 PBM Caremark and #4 PBM AdvancePCS.

In 2007, there was, in our opinion, a disruptive pro-competitive, vertical merger between #2 retail pharmacy CVS and #2 PBM Caremark. At the time, #1 PBM Express Scripts make a hostile bid for Caremark, but withdrew over concerns over the length of antitrust investigations by the FTC.

In 2012, there was a horizontal merger between the #1 PBM Express Scripts and #3 PBM Medco.  In our opinion, this anti-competitive merger was mistakenly approved by the FTC with a one vote majority.  The deciding vote was made by a President Obama appointee, and Harvard Law School classmate, Edith Ramirez.

 In our opinion, Edith Ramirez has cost the American public $75+ Billion in excessive Rx costs over the past 5 years —   5 times an estimated inflated 5% of $300 Billion in yearly Rx drug expenses.

While we are naming names responsible for one the most consumer unfriendly antitrust  decisions in recent history, we want to called out Howard Shelanski et al  at the FTC and George Rozanski, partner at Bates White  Economic Consulting as the economists whose analysis of this merger focused mistakenly on PBMs as sellers of benefits management services rather than as buyers of drugs for resale to plans.

In 2013, the largest health insurer in the USA, UnitedHealth Group,  ended its long running PBM contract with Medco, now owned by Express Scripts.  To handle its own PBM needs, UnitedHealth created an internal unit OptumRx. It grew the unit via taking business away from CVS and Express Scripts and via a 2015 purchase of the tech-savvy PBM Catamaran.

The Pharmacy Benefit Manager Business Model

Since the early 2000s, PBMs have continually come under attack for not acting in the best interest of their clients.  We have written a number of papers since 2004 pinpointing an opaque reseller business model as the source of this misalignment.

The PBM reseller business model is in stark contrast to the two other transparent business models used by managed care companies:  

  1. a self-insurance agency model with 100% pass through of claims expenses to plans accompanied by per-member-per-month (PMPM) management fees;
  2. a risk-based insurance model with capitated premiums paid by plans.

The way companies monetize their businesses — a key component of their overall business model — is a choice.  Often companies sell bundles of products and services and make strategic decisions to monetize one component at a higher margin rate than another component.  Disguising gross profit margins by line of business or bundle components is considered a good business practice.

Take, for example, General Motors. It aspires to build great cars, yet a good share of its gross profits comes from car finance. McDonald’s aspires to offer customers a great tasting hamburger, yet the company has a higher markup on beverages that it does on food. Best Buy recoups slim margins on consumer electronics products with fat margins on extended warranties.

So why should the opaque PBM reseller business model be judged differently than, say, Best Buy’s?  Aren’t PBMs subject to ERISA laws mandating fiduciary responsibility — i.e. acting in best interest of clients?  

Actually no, according to court cases.  It is up to clients of PBMs to hold them accountable for claims that they act in clients’ best interests.  It is up to clients of PBMs to pressure them to offer alternative, more transparent business models.

The Evolution of the PBM Business Model

The PBM business model has evolved considerably over the past 15 years both in terms of the array of managed care services offered and the corresponding distribution of gross profits.

In 2001, PriceWaterhouseCoopers  published an excellent business history of PBMs to that date.   PBMs started out in the 1980s as computer networking specialists who automated Rx claims processing by connecting retail pharmacy point of sales terminals to back-office health insurance mainframes.  

Between 1980-1990, PBMs’ prime source of revenue was claims processing fees.  PBMs only focus was minimizing claims processing costs, a goal totally in line with the goals of their clients.

The excellent PriceWaterhouseCoopers PBM history did mention that PBMs tried a totally transparent insurance premium business model in the early 1990s. But, they abandoned it after a few years due to losses caused by unexpected mid-year increases in unit drug costs and uncontrollable, Pharma-initiated direct-to-consumer advertising campaigns that greatly increased utilization.

The current PBM business model features five major streams of revenue and gross profits:

  1. “spread margins” on top of retailers’ own margins and lately, direct and indirect reimbursement (DIR) fees, that are collected from retail pharmacies in return for being included in their networks;
  2. claims processing and data fees;
  3. rebates given by Pharma on small molecule brand drugs in return for preferred status on formularies;
  4. rebates give by Pharma on speciality (biotech) drugs in return for preferred status on formularies;
  5. profit margins on 90-day generic Rx filled by captive mail order operations.

Since we began following PBMs in 2002, the distribution of gross profits has changed dramatically. These radical shifts in such a short period of time is unprecedented among Fortune 50 companies.

These radical changes are indicative of the opaqueness of the PBM business model to their downstream customers — health insurance plan sponsors.  It is also indicative of the power of the Big 3  PBMs to negotiate rapid changes in payment streams with upstream suppliers — retail pharmacies and brand drug companies — who tacitly collude with them in two intermediate market bilateral oligopolies.

We see 3 distinct phases of the PBM business model over the past 15 years demarcated by radical shifts in the primary source of gross profits:

  1. up to 2005 — reliance on retained rebates from small molecule brand drugs;  
  2. 2005 – 2010 — reliance on mail order generic Rx margins;
  3. 2010 – today — reliance on retained rebates from specialty drugs.

Phase 1:  Retained Rebates from Small Molecule Brand Drugs

Phase 1 ended in 2005 after blog posts started appearing which disaggregated the 10-Qs and 10-Ks of Medco’s business model revealing outrageous rebate retention rates.  There was also a 2004 lawsuit initiated by U.S. Philadelphia District Attorney Patrick Meehan (now Congressman) accusing Medco of switching mail order generic Rx to higher priced rebatable brands.  As part of the settlement, Medco agreed to inform plans of gross rebates received and their rebate retention rates.

For 3Q04, we derived with certainty from Medco’s 10-Q that 71% of its gross profits came from retained rebates from small molecule brand drugs.  By 2Q05, we estimated with certainty that Medco’s retained rebate share of gross profits had dropped to 48% with the difference going to their newly found focus on mail order generics.

We have written extensively about the Pharma – PBM bilateral oligopoly that enabled this phase of the PBM business model.  Rather than rehash this, we refer to the following papers downloadable for free from our website:

  1. Pharmacy Benefit Managers as Conflicted Countervailing Powers , January 2007
  2. Who is Best at Negotiating Pharmaceutical Rebates?  December 2005
  3. PBMs as Bargaining Agents Paper presented at the 80th Annual Western Economic Association Meeting, July 6, 2005, San Francisco
  4. PBMs as Bargaining Agents PowerPoint presented at the 80th Annual Western Economic Association, Meeting, July 6, 2005, San Francisco
  5. The Effect of Corporate Structure on Formulary Design: The Case of Large Insurance Companies Poster Presentation, ISPOR 10th Annual Meeting, Washington DC, May 2005
  6. The Role of Pharmacy Benefit Managers in Formulary Design: Service Providers or Fiduciaries? Journal of Managed Care Pharmacy Vol. 10 No. 4 July/August 2004 pp 359-60

Phase 2: Mail Order Generic Rx Margins

The “interregnum” Phase 2 featured a successful replacement of retained rebates with mail order generic margins.   The Big 3 PBMs devised a strategy of tacitly colluding with the Big 3 sell-side retail pharmacies  — Walgreen, CVS, and Rite-Aid — to hold up retail generic prices in order to allow for PBMs’ mail order generics prices to be lower but still with fat margins.  

Essentially, it was a scheme to limit price competition between retailers and mail order by “buying off” retail pharmacies with reimbursements for 30-day generic Rx at fat margins in return for ceding  90-day generics Rx to captive mail order operations at lower prices but equally fat margins.

According to PBMs,  mail order was good for plans because mail order generic Rx were cheaper than at retail.  Nevermind, if this was only because of PBMs’ rare ability to set the price of their competitors.  This hold-up scheme was just a sure-fire version the anti-competitive tactic of raising rivals costs.

Below is a diagram which compares the margins at the height of Phase 2 “hold-up” scheme versus the lower prices and margins existing today.

The “hold-up” scheme worked for a couple of years.  Our 2003 paper which disaggregated Walgreen’s gross profits  was read by an “outsider” retailer with a different business model that wasn’t dependent on fat Rx margins subsidizing the rest of the store.  That outsider was Walmart.  

Our paper confirmed what they saw — the fat generic Rx margins of Walgreen, etc. dispensed from a “1,000 square foot hole in the back” (our words) making up for slim margins coming the poorly merchandised, 10,000 square foot “front store”.   

In 2006,  Walmart rolled out a  transparent $4 / generic Rx campaign that proved to be the first blow to this hold-up scheme.

The 2007 vertical  merger of the pharmacy retailer CVS and the PBM Caremark marked the beginning of the end of the era of fat generic Rx margins.

A fundamental tool of managed care companies are preferred provider networks.  They succeed in reducing costs by promising increased volume to preferred providers in return for lower unit prices.  In 2006,  we found PBMs’ lack of use of preferred provider networks , along with lack of 90-day Rx at retail, to be obvious signs of the tacit collusion between the Big 3 pharmacy retailers and the Big 3 PBMs.

CVS read our 2005 paper confirming their success at beating out competitors in a Medicare Part D precursor program which was agnostic as to whether the Rx was filled at retail or mail order.

At the time of the CVS Caremark merger in 2006, we predicted  a “coming preferred provider war” among PBMs. Ten years later  “narrow networks” are common.  Generic Rx prices and margins are on a downtrend. And, PBMs no longer tout their mail order generics as the key to their profitability.

Phase 3: Retained Rebates From Specialty Drugs

To compensate for declining mail order generic margins, PBMs saw the rising trend of specialty and biotech drugs as a basis for a renewed reliance on retained rebates.

But there are several problems with the goal of deriving a majority of gross profits from specialty drug rebates.   Reconstructing how PBMs solved these problems provides insights in two observable phenomena of the era of specialty drug rebates:

  1. the so-called deep rebate practice and related gross to net drug price bubble;
  2. the trend of growing number of drugs excluded outright from PBM formulary lists.

First, assume that Big 3 PBMs need to derive about the same 50% of gross profits from specialty drug retained rebates as was derived a decade ago from retained rebates from small molecule “rebatable” brands.

This creates a problem in that the Rx volume “basis” for collecting rebates today is a lot less than it was ten years ago.  How much less?  The Pew Charitable Trust Foundation sponsored a study which found that in 2015 special Rx comprised only 1% of total Rx.  

A decade ago, we estimated that about 20% of total Rx filled were “rebatable” brand drugs, i.e. in therapeutic classes with a few other brand drugs that were therapeutic equivalents.  So instead of 1:100 specialty Rx to total Rx basis differential, we arrive a 1:20  “rebatable” specialty drug Rx to “rebatable” small molecule brand drug Rx basis differential.

In other words,  ten years ago PBMs has 20 times the volume of Rx available to them to use as a basis for generating retained rebates as they do today.

The second constraint that PBMs have today that they did not have a decade ago was the awareness by plans and the public that opaque retained rebate could be a dominant source of gross profits.    

Our 2003-8 era papers listed below were rare examples of quantitative articles exposing PBM reliance on retained rebates:

  1. Quantifying Medco’s Business Model: An Update November 2008
  2. Medco As a Business Model Imperialist  July 2008
  3. A Tale of Two PBMs: Express Scripts vs. Medco November 2005
  4. Quantifying Medco’s Business Model April 2005
  5. Estimating the Rebate-Retention Rate of Pharmacy Benefit Managers April 2003

Today,  articles critical of PBMs in general, and retained rebates specifically,  seem to be at least ten times more numerous than a decade ago.  In 2016, CVS Health has even stated publicly on its website that,

“CVS Caremark was able to reduce trend for clients through… negotiation of rebates, of which more than 90 percent are passed back to clients.”

The problem facing PBMs today is how to derive around 50% of gross profits from specialty Rx while maintaining a transparent “reasonable” rebate retention rate at 10% on average?

How have the Big 3 PBMs accomplished this?  This is achieved by a perverse business model that forces Pharma to play a two-step negotiating game starting with lock-step list price inflation at double digit rates which enables PBMs to opaquely offset the list price inflation with growing “deep discount” rebates.  

Below is a screenshot from a Merck memo laying out for all to see its “gross-to-net drug price bubble”: 

In another paper, we “deconstructed” the Merck data by laying out a step-by-step sequence of how PBMs and drug companies might negotiate the parameters of a rebate deal today under the constraint that PBMs have to increase gross profit DOLLARS over time while fixing the rebate retention rate at 10%.   Below is a spreadsheet of that step-by-step process:

It is clear that Pharma is getting fed up as an enabler of a convoluted PBM business model. There are other drug companies besides Merck that are publishing similar data as way of defending themselves against charges of “double-digit” price-gouging tactics.  A testy exchange between executives at Gilead Science and Express Scripts over who is to blame for the high list prices of Gilead’s top selling Hepatitis C virus drugs went public.

We have written about AbbVie’s “disruptive” low list pricing of its new HCV drug Mavyret that dares PBMs to exclude a no-rebate drug that also happens to be the most cost-effective HCV drug now on the market.

 

PBMs as Business Model Imperialists

It is the PBM business model, not the Pharma business model, that is currently stressed.   If PBMs can no longer rely on specialty drug retained rebates,  they will have to seek a new service to build up opaque margins or convert finally to a 100%  pass through fee-for-service business model.

An example of this is Express Scripts’  October 2017 acquisition of the medical benefit management company eviCore Healthcare for $3.6 Billion dollars.

On the one hand, self-injectable biologic drugs are covered under a drug benefit plan administered by a PBM like Express Scripts. On the other hand,  biologic drugs requiring infusion or injection supervised by a physician at a doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital are covered by a medical benefit plan managed by insurance companies and contracted specialists like eviCore.

The business models are different with PBMs using a reseller model while companies like eviCore use a fee-for-service model.

We think that Express Scripts will try to convince insurance companies that contract with eviCore to switch from a fee-for-service model to a reseller model.  Express Scripts will promise eviCore customers a reduction in overall drug benefit costs if they allow a business model switch.

Express Scripts will achieve cost-saving by promising specialty drug companies exclusivity in insurance coverage for any given therapeutic class in return for greater rebates.  The opaque rebate retention Express Scripts earns should exceed what eviCorp had been getting from fees-for-services.

This is not the first time that a PBM has pursued  a new area of managed care with the intent of changing the business model.

In a 2008 article, we called Medco’s move into fee-for-service disease management a case of “business model imperialism.”

Another example of PBM business model imperialism was a 2009 deal between Express Scripts and Anthem (formerly Wellpoint) to managed its PBM business.  It was structured as a “book of business” deal  where Express paid $4.68 Billion upfront in return a 10 year right to the opaque P&L.  An alternative would have been to structure the deal as a normal fee-for-service PBM contract with 100% pass through.

We called the deal a “double-trouble front” and sure enough, it proved very lucrative for Express Scripts.  It was a headache for Anthem because they had no idea how much Express Scripts was profiting from managing their PBM business.

Express Scripts was painted as the bad guy in this deal, but the fault lies mostly with Wellpoint’s then CEO Angela Braley for selling out Wellpoint’s customers with little controls over how much Express Scripts could make.

The top priority of both Express Scripts and CVS Caremark today is looking to get into the medical drug benefit business — managing drugs requiring infusion or injection  at physician offices, clinics, or by mobile nurses in the home — and converting the business model from fee-for service or capitated insurance premium to a reseller model with opaque retained rebates.

In January 2018, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar made the recommendation at a Senate Finance Committee that infused drugs coverage Medicare Part B be taken over by private sector PBMs who manage Medicare Part D.

This change might result in a lower costs incurred by the government. But, under the current opaque PBM reseller business model, it would be impossible to tell how much profits PBMs would be making.