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Prescription Drug Coupons: A One-Size-Fits-All Policy Approach Doesn’t Fit The Evidence

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Drug manufacturer coupons used by consumers to reduce the size of their prescription copayments are increasingly under fire by federal and state policy makers, as well as by insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). Medicare and Medicaid consider them kickbacks and completely ban their use.

Critics contend that the coupons force insurers to cover more expensive brand drugs and cause overall costs to rise. The counterpoint is also simple. With rising drug copayments, especially for innovative branded medicines, coupons reduce patients’ out-of-pocket costs and provide access to needed therapies.

But the truth is more complex, lying somewhere between these simple arguments. Using data collected from coupon aggregators and commercial insurance claims from 2014, we find that these two sides represent extreme ends of the debate, overlooking key clinical and economic forces. Most importantly, the results of the analysis point to a need for more nuanced policy responses to ensure that patients who currently rely on coupons are not harmed.

Tyrone’s Commentary: 

I’m not one of those individuals who dislikes drug coupons that would be selfish and myopic. However, I do agree that patients should not be rewarded by having coupon amounts applied to their deductible or MOOP. Let’s be honest, non-fiduciary PBMs and health plans don’t like coupons because typically the products with coupons available won’t pay rebates or steers patients away from those that do which reduces the revenue a non-fiduciary PBM would have earned from those products otherwise. Plan sponsors follow suit because their PBM or carrier says it’s a bad thing. If a patient is unable to start or complete specialty drug therapy, due to cost which a coupon may have alleviated, the resulting hospital bill will cost more in the long run. Is it about the patient or not? 

Policy Implications

Manufacturers may offer coupons for a variety of reasons: to induce patients to fill the drug prescribed by their physician rather than a substitute preferred by their PBM or plan; to respond to other manufacturers’ competitive tactics; or simply to improve access for patients who face high copays.

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Tyrone Squires, MBA, CPBS

I am the proud founder and managing director of TransparentRx, a fiduciary-model PBM based in Las Vegas, Nevada. We help health plan sponsors reduce pharmacy spend, by as much as 50%, without cutting benefits or shifting costs to employees.

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