A Windfall for Insurers in the Medicare Part D Coverage Gap

Joanna Shepherd —  13 February 2018

The two-year budget plan passed last week makes important changes to payment obligations in the Medicare Part D coverage gap, also known as the donut hole.  While the new plan produces a one-year benefit for seniors by reducing what they pay a year earlier than was already mandated, it permanently shifts much of the drug costs insurance companies were paying to drug makers.  It’s far from clear whether this windfall for insurers will result in lower drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries.

Medicare Part D is voluntary prescription drug insurance for seniors and the permanently disabled provided by private insurance plans that are approved by the Medicare program.  Last year, more than 42 million people enrolled in Medicare Part D plans. Payment for prescription drugs under Medicare Part D depends on how much enrollees spend on drugs.  In 2018, after hitting a deductible that varies by plan, enrollees pay 25% of their drug costs while the Part D plans pay 75%.  However, once the individual and the plan have spent a total of $3,750, enrollees hit the coverage gap that lasts until $8,418 has been spent.  In the coverage gap, enrollees pay 35% of brand drug costs, the Part D plans pay 15%, and drug makers are required to offer 50% discounts on brand drugs to cover the rest.  Once total spending reaches $8,418, enrollees enter catastrophic coverage in which they pay only 5% of drug costs, the Part D plans pay 15%, and the Medicare program pays the other 80%.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) included provisions to phase out the coverage gap by 2020, so that enrollees will pay only 25% of drug costs from the time they meet the deductible until they hit the catastrophic coverage level.  The budget plan passed last week speeds up this phase out by one year, so enrollees will start paying only 25% in 2019 instead of 2020.  The ACA anticipated that with enrollees paying 25% of drug costs and drug maker discounts of 50%, the Part D plans would pay the other 25%.  However, last week’s budget plan drastically redistributed the payment responsibilities from the Part D insurance plans to drug makers. Under the new plan drug makers are required to offer 70% discounts so that the plans only have to pay 5% of the total drug costs.  That is, the new plan shifts 20% of total drug costs in the coverage gap from insurers to drug makers.

Although the drug spending in each individual’s coverage gap is less than $5,000, with over 42 million people covered, the total spending, and the 20% of spending shifted from insurers to drug makers, is significant.  CMS has estimated that when drug makers’ discounts were only covering 50% of drug spending in the gap, the annual total discounts amounted to over $5.6 billion.  Requiring drug makers to cover another 20% of drug spending will add several billion dollars more to this total.

A government intervention that forces suppliers to cover 70% of the spending in a market is a surprising move for Republicans—supposed advocates of free markets.  Moreover, although reducing prescription drug costs has become a national priority, it’s unclear whether shifting costs from insurers to drug makers will benefit individuals at all.  Theoretically, as the individual Part D plans pay less of their enrollees’ drug costs, they should pass on the savings to enrollees in the form of lower premiums.  However, several studies suggest that enrollees may not experience a net decrease in drug spending.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has determined that under Medicare Part D, drug makers increase list prices to offset other concessions and to more quickly move enrollees out of the coverage gap where drug makers are required to offer price discounts.  Higher list prices mean that enrollees’ total out-of-pocket drug spending increases; even a 5% cost-sharing obligation in the catastrophic coverage for a high-priced drug can be a significant expense. Higher list prices that push enrollees out of the coverage gap also shift more costs onto the Medicare program that pays 80% of drug costs in the catastrophic coverage phase.

A better, more direct way to reduce Medicare Part D enrollees’ out-of-pocket drug spending is to require point-of-sale rebates.  Currently, drug makers offer rebates to Part D plans in order to improve their access to the millions of individuals covered by the plans.  However, the rebates, which total over $16 billion annually, are paid after the point-of-sale, and evidence shows that only a portion of these rebates get passed through to beneficiaries in the form of reduced insurance premiums.  Moreover, a reduction in premiums does little to benefit those enrolled individuals who have the highest aggregate out-of-pocket spending on drugs. (As an aside, in contrast to the typical insurance subsidization of high-cost enrollees by low-cost enrollees, high-spending enrollees under Medicare Part D generate greater rebates for their plans, but then the rebates are spread across all enrollees in the form of lower premiums).

Drug maker rebates will more directly benefit Medicare Part D enrollees if rebates are passed through at the point-of-sale to reduce drug copays.  Point-of-sale rebates would ensure that enrollees see immediate savings as they meet their cost-sharing obligations.  Moreover, the enrollees with the highest aggregate out-of-pocket spending would be the ones to realize the greatest savings.  CMS has recently solicited comments on a plan to require some portion of drug makers’ rebates to be applied at the point of sale, and the President’s budget plan released yesterday proposes point-of-sale rebates to lower Medicare Part D enrollees’ out-of-pocket spending.  Ultimately, targeting rebates to consumers at the point-of-sale will more effectively lower drug spending than reducing insurance plans’ payment obligations in hopes that they pass on the savings to enrollees.

Joanna Shepherd

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Professor of Law; Emory University School of Law