Pharmacy benefit managers say they hold down costs for consumers by negotiating prices with drug manufacturers and retail drugstores, but their practices have come under intense scrutiny.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers said in a report this month that large pharmacy benefit managers “exercise undue market power” and generate “outsized profits for themselves.”
Steven F. Moore, whose family owns Condo Pharmacy in Plattsburgh, N.Y., said the restrictions on pharmacists’ ability to discuss prices with patients were “incredibly frustrating.”
Mr. Moore offered this example of how the pricing works: A consumer filling a prescription for a drug to treat diabetes or high blood pressure may owe $20 if he uses insurance coverage. By contrast, a consumer paying cash might have to pay $8 to $15.
Mark Merritt, the president and chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, which represents benefit managers, said he agreed that consumers should pay the lower amount.
As for the use of gag clauses, he said: “It’s not condoned by the industry. We don’t defend it. It has occurred on rare occasions, but it’s an outlier practice that we oppose.”
However, Thomas E. Menighan, the chief executive of the American Pharmacists Association, said that such clauses were “not an outlier,” but instead a relatively common practice. Under many contracts, he said, “the pharmacist cannot volunteer the fact that a medicine is less expensive if you pay the cash price and we don’t run it through your health plan.”
A bipartisan measure that took effect in Connecticut this year prohibits the gag clauses. It was introduced by the top Democrat in the Connecticut Senate, Martin M. Looney, and the top Republican, Len Fasano.
“This is information that consumers should have,” Mr. Looney said in an interview, “but that they were denied under the somewhat arbitrary and capricious contracts that pharmacists were required to abide by.”
Mr. Fasano said that consumers were sometimes paying three or four times as much when they used their insurance as they would have paid without it. “That’s price gouging,” he said in an interview.
The legislation, Mr. Fasano said, encountered “a lot of resistance” from large pharmacy benefit managers and some insurance companies.
In North Carolina, a new law says that pharmacists “shall have the right” to provide insured customers with information about their insurance co-payments and less costly alternatives.
A new Georgia law says that a pharmacist may not be penalized for disclosing such information to a customer. Maine has adopted a similar law.
In North Dakota, a new law explicitly bans gag orders. It says that a pharmacy or pharmacist may provide information that “may include the cost and clinical efficacy of a more affordable alternative drug if one is available.”
The North Dakota law also says that a pharmacy benefit manager or insurer may not charge a co-payment that exceeds the actual cost of a medication.
The lobby for drug benefit companies, the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, has filed suit in federal court to block the North Dakota law, saying it imposes “onerous new restrictions on pharmacy benefit managers.”
Specifically, it says, the North Dakota law could require the disclosure of “proprietary trade secrets,” including information about how drug prices are set. “P.B.M.–pharmacy contracts typically preclude a pharmacy from disclosing to the patient the amount of a reimbursement,” the lawsuit says.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, said this past week that he would call a special session of the State Legislature to authorize the regulation of pharmacy benefit managers by the state’s Insurance Department.
He said he feared that some independent pharmacists receiving “inadequate reimbursement” from the benefit managers might go out of business, reducing patients’ access to care, especially in rural areas.