Work comp pharmacy fee schedules – what’s the answer

The evidence is pretty clear – low fee schedules don’t have much, if any, impact on drug costs. Sure, they give the appearance of action, and some actuaries and politicians are able to claim future cost reductions based solely on slashing drug fee schedules from some multiple of AWP to some fraction of AWP, or perhaps even a state’s Medicaid rate. But the data – whether from NCCI, CWCI, or my own firm’s surveys, suggest that the price per pill (with some notable exceptions) is much less important in the scheme of things than how many and what type of pills are dispensed to claimants.
Exhibit One is CWCI’s recent analysis of drug costs post implementation of MediCal as the basis for the work comp fee schedule. Alex Swedlow (one of the best and brightest analysts in the business) and John Ireland’s analysis found “significant post-reform growth in both the average number of prescriptions and the average payments per claim for prescription medications. Between calendar years 2005 and 2007, the number of prescriptions per claim in the first year following a work injury increased 25 percent, while first-year pharmaceutical payments per claim increased 36 percent.” [emphasis added]
Yes, after slashing the fee schedule from AWP+40% for generics and AWP+10% for brand (plus dispensing fees) to something closer to AWP-50% Generic /AWP-20% Brand, drug costs per claim went up. A lot. But that’s not the worst of it.
The biggest percentage gainer? Schedule II narcotics – the heavy-duty stuff, associated with significant risk of addiction and abuse – went from less than one percent of scripts to almost six percent – a 600% jump in three years.
Why? One theory, which I’ve tested in conversations with several clinical pharmacists, is the drastic decrease in reimbursement in the Golden State left PBMs with no funds to do any real Drug Utilization Review (DUR), and even less to intervene on potentially high-cost, high-impact claims. PBMs make their money on the delta between what they charge the payer and what the retail pharmacy charges them; in almost all cases, PBMs’ retail contracts call for reimbursement above the CA MediCal rate.
Tough to make that up on volume…
I’m meeting with interested folks in DC tomorrow to discuss this issue, and perhaps to think thru some potential alternatives to AWP, or God forbid, Medicaid as the basis for comp Rx fee schedules.
And as I prepare for the conversation, I’m thinking that a fee schedule based on Usual and Customary has some appeal.
U&C in pharmacy is the cash price for that drug on that day at that pharmacy; think $4 for the long list of generics pioneered by Walmart (which, by the way, is lower than what Walmart charges comp PBMs for the same drugs). Unlike other U&Cs, it is tougher to game, can be reported and collected electronically, and bears some relevance to market price – unlike AWP, which is known as ‘Ain’t What’s Paid’ as it doesn’t factor in rebates, volume discounts, and other price-reducing mechanisms. True work comp drug geeks will know that 33 states currently use AWP as the basis for their fee schedules.
U&C isn’t perfect – any time you base reimbursement on a rate that can be set by the payee, you open yourself up to abuse. But risk of abuse or gaming is likely pretty low – pharmacies see very few work comp scripts, and aren’t likely to play games with their cash price customers just to make a few more bucks on a comp patient. And pharmacy chains do tend to alter pricing to respond to market demands, making U&C at least somewhat credible.
Perhaps best of all, U&C is going to be around for the long term – unlike the version of AWP that is most popular which will disappear within a year.

Work comp drug fee schedules – what’s going to happen?

No one knows just yet, not even the regulators and legislators who are the ones tasked with coming up with a mechanism to replace AWP – which is going away in less than eighteen months.
More accurately, the First Databank/Medispan version is going to disappear; the Redbook version will still be around.
One option is to use Redbook as the standard, and there are some indications from some states that they are looking at Redbook. But Redbook has its issues – folks who know more than I about these things say it is not updated as frequently as Bluebook, and while it covers more medications, this ‘delay’ may make it problematic for PBMs who may well get into disagreements with retail pharmacies over the reimbursement level.
Beyond that ‘quick fix’, here’s how the changes may roll out. States with fee schedules set by their legislatures may well find themselves hard-pressed to meet the deadline; some, like Texas, aren’t due to meet until 2011, and others have a rather full legislative agenda with a lot more important stuff to deal with than work comp drug fee schedules. Thus, it is entirely possible that some states may not be able to address the issue before the clock runs out.
In that case, PBMs and payers will likely have to use the last version of the FDB AWP file for repricing pharma bills. That’s fine if the delay in selecting a new benchmark is a matter of days or perhaps weeks, but if it goes much beyond that we’ll see problems as prices charged by pharmacies will change while the reimbursement levels don’t. Litigation will likely ensue…
States that manage fee schedules via regulatory process are (likely) going to be a bit better off, as these processes are not dependent on the legislative process and complications thereof. Several states are already carefully evaluating alternative methodologies, and from my interaction with a number of regulators at the IAIABC conference last month, they are goign about this thoughtfully and with their eyes and ears wide open.
The real risk is if fee schedules are changed to match the Medicaid reimbursement rates.
This would be a disaster, as it was in California when physician dispensing exploded, and drug costs actually increased after the fee schedule was linked to Medi-Cal. In NY, where the State also set WC reimbursement at Medicaid, every PBM sent letters to the Chairman of the Workers Comp Board relaying their intention to exit the state if rates were not revised. Fortunately for all parties, they were successful in their efforts.
Unlike workers comp, there is no eligibility problem with medicaid – all recipients have a card. The formulary and DUR processes are well known and electronically administered. In comp, many claimants don’t know who their PBM is, and the only drugs that are approvced have to be directly related to the occupational injury or illness. These are just a couple of the distinctions, but they serve to illustrate the fundamental, and real, differences between comp and Medicaid.
Stay tuned – it is likely the big group PBMs and payers will move to another pricing benchmark, and like it or not, that will become the de facto ‘standard’.