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Reducing Out-of-Pocket Cost Barriers to Specialty Drug Use Under Medicare Part D: Addressing the Problem of "Too Much Too Soon"
Jalpa A. Doshi, PhD; Pengxiang Li, PhD; Amy R. Pettit, PhD; J. Samantha Dougherty, PhD; Ashley Flint, MPP; and Vrushabh P. Ladage, BS

Reducing Out-of-Pocket Cost Barriers to Specialty Drug Use Under Medicare Part D: Addressing the Problem of "Too Much Too Soon"

Jalpa A. Doshi, PhD; Pengxiang Li, PhD; Amy R. Pettit, PhD; J. Samantha Dougherty, PhD; Ashley Flint, MPP; and Vrushabh P. Ladage, BS
Medicare claims analyses offer insight into how proposed policy changes would affect out-of-pocket prescription costs for Part D beneficiaries requiring specialty drugs.
In 2012, specialty drug users in the RA group faced mean annual cumulative OOP drug costs of $3949 for all their Part D medications, whereas those in the MS and CML groups paid an average of $5238 and $6322, respectively. The majority of these costs were due to specialty drug spending (ie, 88% for the RA group, 91% for the MS group, and 95% for the CML group) (Figure 2). A significant proportion of the MS (84%) and CML (87%) groups had annual specialty drug OOP costs of $5000 or more (data not shown). Because OOP spending pushed specialty drug users through the deductible, initial coverage phase, and coverage gap quite quickly in 2012, patients continued to have substantial OOP spending requirements during the catastrophic coverage phase, despite the fact that their coinsurance obligation dropped to 5%. Across disease areas, a substantial proportion of total annual OOP prescription spending occurred during the catastrophic coverage phase (RA: $1229 [31% of annual OOP costs]; MS: $2456 [47%]; CML: $3546 [56%]) (Figure 3). At the same time, specialty drug users had to bear large mean OOP costs in January alone (RA: $977; MS: $1613; CML: $2456). Once again, specialty drug costs were driving this OOP spending (see eAppendix Figures A and B). These January OOP costs represented a substantial portion of spending for the entire year (RA: 25% of annual spending; MS: 31%; CML: 40%) (Figure 4), and about half of total OOP costs were paid out by February.

OOP Cost Patterns Under Proposed MedPAC Changes to Part D Cost Sharing and Under Our Proposed Strategies

Simulated analyses examining the impact of proposed MedPAC recommendations showed that the policy changes would have mixed effects on beneficiaries' OOP burden (Figure 5 and eAppendix Figure C). Because manufacturer discounts for brand name drugs during the coverage gap phase would no longer be credited toward patients’ TrOOP spending, patients using brand name specialty drugs would have taken longer to reach the TrOOP spending limit, leading them to remain in the coverage gap phase for a greater period of time. Because of this widened coverage gap, they would have been subject to 50% cost sharing until they reached the TrOOP spending limit that triggers entry into the catastrophic coverage phase. As such, only patients whose cumulative annual spending (excluding manufacturer discounts) would have exceeded the designated spending limit ($4700 in 2012) would have seen overall savings from the elimination of 5% cost sharing during the catastrophic coverage phase. Under current policy, manufacturer discounts can effectively reduce OOP spending in the coverage gap by up to half, depending on an individual beneficiary’s drug utilization patterns. This differential impact was apparent across our 3 diagnostic subgroups. Although patients in the MS and CML groups would have seen a decrease in cumulative mean annual OOP costs under the proposed changes, the RA group would have experienced an increase in costs ($4540 under MedPAC vs $3949 in 2012; data not shown) due to fewer beneficiaries reaching the OOP limit.

Given that patients in all disease samples had OOP costs that pushed them into the coverage gap early in the coverage year (often with the first fill of their disease-specific specialty drug), and they would have faced a higher threshold to exit the coverage gap under the MedPAC recommendations, the proposed policy changes would ultimately subject patients to even higher, more concentrated OOP costs during these early months (Figure 5). Patients would have faced maximum annual OOP spending of $4700 in 2012, but this entire OOP cost burden would have to be borne by most patients in the first 3 to 4 months of the calendar year. Furthermore, under the MedPAC changes, the mean OOP costs in January and February would be even higher than under existing policy (eg, $994 under MedPAC vs $977 in January 2012 for RA; $1685 under MedPAC vs $1613 for MS; $2814 under MedPAC vs $2452 for CML) (Figures 4 and 5).

Instituting a monthly OOP maximum based on an annual OOP maximum of $4700—which also counts the 50% manufacturer discounts for brand name drugs in the coverage gap—under our proposed strategies, in contrast, would result in a maximum of $392 in OOP costs to be borne by the patient in any given calendar month, as indicated by the dotted line in Figure 5.

Incremental Cost of Our Proposed Changes and Financing Strategies

Based on Medicare utilization numbers,18 approximately 700,000 (2.8%) of the 24.2 million non-LIS beneficiaries enrolled in Part D plans reached the catastrophic coverage phase in 2013. They paid mean OOP costs of approximately $814 during that phase, for a total of approximately $569.8 million in patient OOP spending during the catastrophic coverage phase. Dividing that cost among all non-LIS beneficiaries, implementation of our proposal would have cost an additional $23.55 for each non-LIS beneficiary per year (ie, $1.96 per month).12,18 In practice, the increased costs of $23.55 per beneficiary per year would not be straight pass-through costs via premiums, but would instead be borne out through the Part D plan bidding process, ultimately reducing the amount by which beneficiaries are directly impacted. Nevertheless, the incremental costs of our proposed changes are minimal when averaged over all non-LIS beneficiaries, regardless of the ultimate financing mechanism.


Our analyses demonstrate that Medicare beneficiaries using high-cost specialty drugs face variable and high OOP cost obligations under the existing Part D cost-sharing structure, with a majority of these expenditures concentrated at the beginning of the calendar year. In 2 of our 3 disease samples (MS and CML), the average OOP cost of the first disease-specific specialty drug fill for the calendar year nearly equaled or exceeded the average monthly Social Security benefit.19 This benefit provides a substantial portion of income for many Medicare beneficiaries.20 In all 3 disease areas we examined—RA, MS, and CML—the required 5% coinsurance payments during the catastrophic coverage phase also resulted in considerable cumulative OOP spending during the remainder of the year, consistent with findings reported elsewhere.3 Our simulation found that changes proposed by MedPAC, which effectively introduce an annual OOP spending maximum via elimination of cost sharing during the catastrophic coverage phase, would provide some relief later in the year for patients facing the highest specialty drug costs. Yet, the changes would actually exacerbate the problem of front-loaded costs at the beginning of the coverage year and fewer beneficiaries would likely benefit from the annual OOP spending limit, as many patients would remain in the coverage gap longer under the proposal to exclude manufacturer discounts for brand name drugs from TrOOP spending. This would exacerbate their total OOP costs and the timing of these costs. Excluding the discounts would also effectively double OOP costs paid by these beneficiaries in the coverage gap by widening the gap; this undermines the goal of better managing the timing and magnitude of OOP costs and ensuring appropriate access to care.

Such high and variable spending requirements are disruptive to monthly budgets, and our data highlight the fact that evaluation of the financial burden related to OOP spending should pay attention to both the magnitude and the timing of OOP expenditures. Our proposed strategies would institute both an annual and a monthly OOP maximum spending limit, which would spread OOP costs more evenly across the year. This would have resulted in OOP costs closer to $400 per month in our 2012 sample (inclusive of manufacturer discounts in the coverage gap); although the amount would increase slightly in 2017 due to an increase in the TrOOP spending limit, it would remain more manageable than existing OOP obligations. This would most likely improve patients’ ability to meet their OOP cost-sharing obligations, especially early in the year. In addition, maintaining the current policy to count manufacturer discounts toward TrOOP would effectively lower overall OOP spending below the $4700 limit for beneficiaries requiring brand name medications. The proposed OOP spending limit would also increase the predictability of monthly OOP obligations, much like how payment options provided by energy companies enable more consistent budgeting despite seasonal variability in consumption. In light of a growing body of evidence that links high cost sharing among Medicare Part D beneficiaries with delayed initiation of treatment, increased gaps in treatment, and reduced adherence (compared with beneficiaries who receive LIS and face more stable, low cost sharing), reducing the OOP burden associated with specialty drug use would likely improve access to and optimal use of these treatments.5,10

It should be noted that our analyses provide a snapshot of the impact of both existing and proposed policies utilizing a sample year of prescription fill data from 2012. This is in line with MedPAC’s own analysis of their proposed changes, which also used a single year of data (from 2013). However, the Part D benefit is dynamic; each year, there are changes to the designated spending limits that trigger entry into each benefit phase, and additional changes related to provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are scheduled to be implemented over the next 5 years, further impacting OOP costs. Most importantly, the catastrophic coverage threshold is scheduled to increase significantly by 2020, and 2 main factors will lead to additional widening of the coverage gap phase, making it harder for beneficiaries to reach the OOP threshold for catastrophic coverage (and thus, the proposed annual OOP spending maximum).

First, Part D plans will offer more generous plan coverage, which will displace previous beneficiary OOP spending during the coverage gap with payments that will not count toward patients’ TrOOP—thereby indirectly widening the gap. Second, the growth rate of the TrOOP threshold that triggers catastrophic coverage was slowed from 2014 through 2019 under the ACA. As the coverage gap closes, however, the TrOOP threshold for 2020 will be set as if growth had not been artificially slowed.21 This will lead to a $1200 increase in the TrOOP threshold from 2019 to 2020, a phenomenon known as the “OOP cliff.”22 Consequently, the beneficiary OOP burden documented in our analyses will intensify over time. Furthermore, a larger number of beneficiaries are likely to be affected over time. Ongoing developments in pharmaceutical treatments are likely to increase the number of non-LIS beneficiaries who are prescribed medications associated with the highest levels of OOP spending; for example, the past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the use of new treatments for hepatitis C, a trend that began after our 2012 data. This underscores the urgent need for strategies to alleviate OOP costs and burden.


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