How organizations can spend less on high-cost specialty drugs

The cost of specialty drugs continues to rise. In fact, it almost doubled from 2003 to 2014, according to a study from UNC-Chapel Hill. While less than 2 percent of the U.S. population used these drugs in 2015, research from pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts shows they represent 37 percent of the nation’s drug spending.

By 2018, the figure is expected to reach 50 percent.

“Specialty drugs can cost several thousands of dollars for each prescription,” says Amber Hulme, Medical Mutual vice president of the Central Region. “And every year, costs go up, more drugs are released and organizations see their drug spend increase by 20 percent or more. That’s why it’s so important for them to take steps to control their own spending.”

Smart Business spoke with Hulme about the importance of having programs in place to control spending on these expensive, specialty drugs, and what steps organizations can take that will make the biggest impact.

What are specialty drugs?

Specialty drugs are often used to treat very rare or complex conditions that usually affect a very small portion of the population. They are typically biological drugs that are infused, injected or require special handling. Some common examples are those drugs used to treat cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and AIDS/HIV.

What’s the best way for organizations to manage specialty drug costs?

First, make sure a specialty pharmacy is handling specialty drugs for your employees. Specialty pharmacies normally have the best pricing available. A retail pharmacy dispensing a specialty medication doesn’t have enough volume; they may only have one or two patients for certain conditions. A specialty pharmacy, on the other hand, might distribute these drugs across a much larger region and serve many more patients.

So it’s important for organizations to check with their insurance carrier or pharmacy benefit manager to see what specialty pharmacies are available in the pharmacy network. They should encourage — or even require — employees to use specialty pharmacies to help employees get the best possible prices for these expensive drugs.

What services do specialty pharmacies offer?

In addition to better pricing, specialty pharmacies do in-depth patient care and training. Clinicians will often train patients, for example, on how to administer medications that require self-injections. There’s also outreach to patients to make sure they are taking their medications.

One problem with specialty drugs is adherence. When employees take their medications properly, they’re more likely to be able to come to work, and less likely to need costly emergency room trips. This can make a big difference to an organization in terms of overall medical costs.

What other cost-saving measures are there?

Many organizations implement processes called ‘prior authorization’ and ‘step therapy.’ These two programs require that patients meet the appropriate criteria for the medication and first try a proven, but more affordable, drug before a more expensive alternative will be covered.

Another measure is to limit supplies of specialty drugs to 30 days. This helps avoid unnecessary costs that occur when a patient experiences intolerable side effects after the first few doses or the drug is no longer effective. Also, organizations with high employee turnover, for example, may not want to offer a three-month supply of a drug that costs thousands of dollars.

Anything else organizations should know about specialty drugs?

One development that could change the market is the use of ‘biosimilars,’ which are essentially generic alternatives to specialty drugs. It’s the same concept as traditional generics, where other manufacturers can sell the same drug for a lower price — potentially 15 to 20 percent less than the cost of the original drug.

So far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only approved two biosimilar drugs, Zarxio (a drug used in cancer treatment) and Inflectra (a drug used for inflammatory conditions), but it is expected to approve others in the relatively near future.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Medical Mutual