The nefarious plot of generic drug tiers

Is All “Skin in the Game” Fair Game? The Problem With “Non-Preferred” Generics

By Gerry Oster, PhD, and A. Mark Fendrick, MD, September 17, 2014

The new blockbuster drug sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) is offering hope to many patients with hepatitis C, but treatment is expensive and many insurers are demanding that patients shoulder a large portion of the cost. The demand that patients pay a larger share of their drug costs, however, is not limited to expensive new medicines. In fact, many patients are now facing substantially higher co-pays for various generic drugs that their insurers have designated “non-preferred,” often including those recommended as first-line treatment in evidence-based guidelines for hypertension, diabetes, epilepsy, schizophrenia, migraine headache, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). We are concerned about this relatively recent development.

For many years, most insurers had formularies that consisted of only 3 tiers: Tier 1 was for generic drugs (lowest co-pay), Tier 2 was for branded drugs that were designated “preferred” (higher co- pay), and Tier 3 was for “nonpreferred” branded drugs (highest co-pay). Generic drugs were automatically placed in Tier 1, thereby ensuring that patients had access to medically appropriate therapies at the lowest possible cost. In these 3-tier plans, all generic drugs were de facto “preferred.” Now, however, a number of insurers have split their all-generics tier into a bottom tier consisting of “preferred” generics, and a second tier consisting of “non-preferred” generics, paralleling the similar split that one typically finds with branded products. Co-pays for generic drugs in the “non-preferred” tier are characteristically much higher than those for drugs in the first tier.

To better understand coverage policies in plans with 2 tiers for generic drugs, we identified several such offerings, including both commercial plans and those under the Medicare Part D program, via an informal search of the Internet. For 6 such plans, we examined coverage policies for 10 widely used drugs—all generically available—that are recommended as first-line treatment in current evidence-based guidelines.

While 2 of the plans provide access on a “preferred” basis to all of the medicines we considered, 1 or more of the drugs are “non-preferred” in all of the remaining plans. Metformin, for example, is a “non-preferred” drug in 1 plan, despite being a first-line treatment for type 2 diabetes mellitus. Two plans have no “preferred” generic anticonvulsant drugs; 3 plans have no “preferred” generic antipsychotic medicines; levodopa is designated a “non-preferred” agent in 3 plans; 4 plans have no “preferred” generic triptans (for migraine headache); and all generic antiretrovirals are Tier 2 agents in 4 plans. When there are no “preferred” generics from which clinicians and patients with particular diseases can choose, it may be argued that the diseases themselves effectively are “non-preferred.”

It is sometimes argued that patients should have “skin in the game” to motivate them to become more prudent consumers. One must ask, however, what sort of consumer behavior is encouraged when all generic medicines for particular diseases are “non-preferred” and subject to higher co-pays. The answer is informed, we believe, by a 2007 JAMA study of cost sharing by researchers at RAND, which was based on a review of 132 published studies. The authors report that “(i)ncreased cost sharing is associated with lower rates of drug treatment, worse adherence among existing users, and more frequent discontinuation of therapy” and that “for certain conditions, the evidence clearly indicates that more cost sharing is associated with increased use of other medical services, such as hospitalizations and emergency department visits.

When insurers designate clinically important generic medicines “nonpreferred” and there are no therapeutically equivalent “preferred” alternatives from which to choose, it cannot be argued that patients are thereby motivated to become more prudent consumers. The existence of clinically sound therapeutic choices is a precondition for any meaningful effort intended to make patients put “skin in the game.” Without choice, such policies are simply punitive and run counter to established principles of formulary design and management.

Charles Ornstein of ProPublica provides an excellent discussion of this in today’s New York Times:



By Don McCanne, MD

Why are the insurers establishing tiers of generic drugs with different levels of cost sharing? Cost sharing does shift some of the responsibility of paying for care from the insurer to the patient, but this goes far beyond that.

Establishing tiers of drugs with different levels of cost sharing originally was to encourage patients to select generic drugs which were much less expensive for the insurer to cover. Unfortunately, with our let-the-market-work policies, drugs are being priced in the stratosphere. Even generics have seen skyrocketing price increases. You might think that this is why the private insurers have decided to place generics in tiers, but you would be missing their nefarious strategy.

What we are seeing is the placement of generic drugs used to treat serious chronic diseases into the non-preferred tier which then exposes the patient to greater cost sharing. The shopping behavior that the insurer is encouraging is to have patients with chronic disorders leave their plans and enroll in their competitors’ plans instead. Thus the tier of non-preferred generic drugs has been established to chase away patients who have “non-preferred” chronic diseases - non-preferred by the insurer, that is.

This really does demonstrate how much more evil the private insurers have become. They will continue to find new ways to swindle us. What is insane is that we continue to tolerate them when we know that there is a far better solution - a single payer national health program. Why is the nation not outraged?