If one message is becoming clear, it’s that increased concentration is harming consumers and leading to less competition, decreased choice and higher cost. The need for corporations to compete is dampened when markets are dominated by a small number of firms. Worse, when consumers don’t have the ability to discipline markets there is a lack of transparency or accountability.
Nowhere is that more true than in the market for Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) — the unregulated entities that control the reimbursement of drugs. These little known, unregulated middlemen are able to ramp up the cost of drugs by demanding rebates and other payments from drug manufacturers, and because of a lack of transparency and choice they are able to pocket much of these rebates, escalating the cost of drugs.
The Council of Economic Advisors, after a comprehensive review of rising drug costs, identified the lack of PBM competition as a major culprit. It found that only three PBMs controlled more than 85 percent of the market, “which allows them to exercise undue market power against manufacturers and against the health plans and beneficiaries they are supposed to be representing, thus generating outsized profits for themselves.”
The effect of market power on rebates and other payments to PBMs is clear. As one study found pharmaceutical manufacturer rebates skyrocketed 108 percent from 2011 to 2016 — rising from $66 billion to $127 billion in those five years.
Do skyrocketing rebates benefit consumers? Not much. As Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has observed, “this thicket of negotiated discounts makes it impossible to recognize and reward value, and too often generates profits for middlemen rather than savings for patients.” Consumers pay more because their copays are based on list prices that are inflated by the rebates and other payments secured by the PBMs.
You do not need a Ph.D. in economics to figure out that the market is not competitive and that consumers are paying more than they otherwise would. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb observed, “Kabuki drug-pricing constructs — constructs that obscure profit taking across the supply chain that drives up costs; that expose consumers to high out of pocket spending; and that actively discourage competition.”
Gottlieb identifies the lack of PBM competition and transparency as the real culprit. “The consolidation and market concentration make the rebating and contracting schemes all that more pernicious. And the very complexity and opacity of these schemes help to conceal their corrosion on our system — and their impact on patients.”
Now the two largest PBMs seek to merge with two insurance giants — CVS Caremark’s proposed acquisition of Aetna and Cigna’s proposed acquisition of Express Scripts. I have already observed how the CVS deal will harm competition and consumers. Adding another deal is like fighting a fire with gasoline.
These mergers rightly face tough scrutiny before the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. As the American Antitrust Institute’s recent comprehensive white paper documents in detail, these mergers significantly threaten competition in health insurance, pharmacy and PBM markets and must be blocked.
And as Rep. Rick Crawford’s (R-Ariz.) recent letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposing the CVS/Aetna merger nicely emphasizes, such “vertical integration does not encourage competition or lower prices, but rather, could limit the choices and access for patients, driving out competitors while driving up prices and reimbursements for themselves.”
The reasons are straightforward and compelling. Many insurance companies want the service of an independent PBM — one not aligned with a rival insurance company. PBM services and the ability to control pharmaceutical costs are a crucial input for any insurance company, especially since the costs of drugs is an increasing part of the costs that need to be controlled.
Such reforms would include meaningful transparency and disclosure of rebates to payers, eliminating pharmacy gag clauses that prevent pharmacists from disclosing lower priced drugs, preventing PBMs from egregious reimbursement practices that force pharmacists to dispense below cost, and proper disclosure of pricing to pharmacists. As a basic first step both Express Scripts and Cigna must commit to pass through rebates to lower consumer costs as UnitedHealthcare has done.
But even these commitments are probably not enough. History tells a dismal story — past mergers have harmed consumers through less choice and higher costs as PBM profits have soared. No promises of good conduct can overcome the excessive concentration in the PBM market. The CEA recommended, “policies to decrease concentration in the PBM market … can increase competition and further reduce the price of drugs.” DOJ can begin this process by preventing the market from getting worse and simply blocking these mergers.