Twelve Medical Groups Pen Letter Opposing UHC Copay Accumulator Program

Larry Beresford

November 05, 2020

Last month, the American College of Rheumatology joined with 11 other medical associations and disease societies asking health insurance giant UnitedHealthcare (UHC) to not proceed with its proposed copay accumulator medical benefit program.

Copay accumulators are policies adopted by insurance companies or their pharmacy benefit managers to exclude patient copayment assistance programs for high-cost drugs, which are promulgated by the drug manufacturers, from being applied to a patient's annual deductibles or out-of-pocket maximums.

The manufacturer's copay assistance, such as in the form of coupons, is designed to minimize the patient's out-of-pocket costs. But insurers believe manufacturers will have no pressure to lower the prices of expensive specialty drugs unless patients are unable to afford them. Copay accumulators thus are aimed at giving insurers more leverage in negotiating prices for high-cost drugs.

UHC issued its new copay accumulator protocol for commercial individual and fully insured group plans in early October, effective Jan. 1, 2021, "in order to align employer costs for specialty medications with actual member out of pocket and deductibles," according to the company's announcement.

In other words, patients will need to pay a higher share of the costs of these medications, said rheumatologist Christopher Phillips, MD, who chairs the Insurance Subcommittee of ACR's Rheumatologic Care Committee. The annual price of biologic therapies for rheumatologic conditions ranges from $22,000 to $44,000, according to a recent press release from ACR.

The copay accumulator will negate the benefits of manufacturers' copayment assistance programs for the patient, shifting more of the cost to the patient. With patients being forced to pay a higher share of drug costs for expensive biologic treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other rheumatologic conditions, they'll stop taking the treatments, Phillips said.

"In my solo rheumatology practice in Paducah, Kentucky, when I've seen this kind of program applied on the pharmacy benefit side, rather than the medical benefit side, almost uniformly patients stop taking the high-cost treatments." That can lead to disease flares, complications, and permanent disability. The newer rheumatologic drugs can cost $500 to $1,000 per treatment, and in many cases, there's no generic or lower-cost alternative, he says. "We see policies like this as sacrificing patients to the battle over high drug prices. It's bad practice, bad for patient outcomes, and nobody — apart from the payer — benefits."

In ACR's 2020 Rheumatic Disease Patient Survey, nearly half of 1,109 online survey respondents who had rheumatic diseases reported out-of-pocket costs greater than $1,000 per year for treatment. An IQVIA report from 2016 found that one in four specialty brand prescriptions are abandoned during the deductible phase, three times the rate seen when there is no deductible.

In an Oct. 7 letter to UHC, the 12 groups acknowledged that the drugs targeted by the accumulator policy are expensive. "However, they are also vitally important for our patients." In addition to the ACR, the organizations involved include the AIDS Institute, American Academy of Dermatology Association, American Academy of Neurology, American College of Gastroenterology, American Gastroenterological Association, American Kidney Fund, Arthritis Foundation, Association for Clinical Oncology, Cancer Support Community, Coalition of State Rheumatology Organizations, and National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

UHC did not reply to questions in time for publication.

First Large-scale Payer to Try Copay Accumulator Program

Under UHC's proposed policy, providers will be required to use UHC's portal to report payment information received from drug manufacturer copay assistance programs that are applied to patients' cost share of these drugs through a complex, 14-step "coupon submission process" involving multiple technology interfaces. "My first oath as a physician is to do no harm to my patient. Many of us are concerned about making these reports, which could harm our patients and undermine the doctor-patient relationship," Phillips said.

"If I don't report, what happens? I don't think we know the answer to that. Some of us may decide we need to part ways with UHC." Others may decline to participate in the drug manufacturers' coupon programs beyond simply informing patients that manufacturer assistance is available.

"We've watched these copay accumulator policies for several years," he said. "Some of them are rather opaque, with names like 'copay savings programs' or 'copay value programs.' But we had not seen a large-scale payer try to do this until now. Let's face it: If UHC's policy goes through, you can count the days until we see it from others."

The Department of Health & Human Services, in its May 2020 final federal "Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2021," indicated that individual states have the responsibility to regulate copay accumulator programs. Five states have banned them or restricted their use for individual and small group health plans. Arizona, Illinois, Virginia, and West Virginia passed such laws in 2019, and Georgia did so earlier this year.

"In next year's state legislative sessions, we'll make it a priority to pursue similar laws in other states," Phillips said. "I'd encourage rheumatologists to educate their patients on the issues and be active in advocating for them."

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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