High copayments for 'specialty pharmacy' medications has little effect on use

Higher copayments have a small effect on usage of "specialty pharmacy" medications, which can cost as much as $10,000 monthly, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Health Affairs, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

Health insurers often place specialty pharmacy medications -- injectable and biological medications that target a gene or protein and often are used to treat complex chronic conditions such as anemia, cancer and multiple sclerosis -- on the "fourth tier" of prescription drug formularies and require members to pay 25% copays for the treatments, with maximum out-of-pocket payments of $1,000 annually.

However, the study, led by Dana Goldman, chair and director for health economics at RAND, finds that higher copays for specialty pharmacy medications reduce usage by only 1% to 21%, compared with 30% to 50% for traditional treatments.

"Insurance markets work best when there is the chance of substantial loss, when that loss is sufficiently rare and uncertain, and when the presence of coverage will not alter behavior much," according to the study.

As a result, specialty pharmacy medications "appear to warrant greater, not less, coverage than traditional pharmaceutical agents," the study finds.

Goldman said, "Patients are desperate for these drugs, and they're willing to pay quite a bit to try whatever is out there," adding, "Even though they're expensive, that cost is spread over a very large insurance pool, so, socially, it makes sense that we should cover them" (Snowbeck, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/12).

The study is available online.

Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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