When the cost to provide prescription-drug coverage to employees at SRA International increased 8 percent during the company’s fall 2004 insurance renewal, Wayne Grubbs was delighted. An odd response from SRA’s corporate controller and treasurer? Not at all: for other customers of insurer Unicare in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, where SRA’s employees are concentrated, the cost was going up an average of 17.5 percent. Grubbs credits close attention to pharmacy costs and changes to the company’s plan design for an annual savings of more than $350,000.
One key change came in January 2004 when SRA, an IT-services firm with $756 million in revenues and 3,800 employees, adopted a preauthorization program for some types of common drugs. The program requires employees and their doctors to first try cheaper medication options for certain ailments, such as arthritis or common allergies, and move to more-expensive medications only when necessary. That had an immediate effect on costs, recalls Ann W. Denison, vice president and director of human resources at SRA.
“As soon as we started asking the [medical] providers to verify that they had tried over-the-counter or other nonprescription solutions before they went to the prescription, we saved money on drugs,” says Denison. Other efforts also helped to moderate cost increases, according to Grubbs, including the use of nurses on staff to help manage large medical claims.
SRA isn’t alone in rethinking the way it structures prescription-drug benefits, which now account for about 18 percent of active employees’ health-care costs. Companies everywhere are looking for new ways to manage their drug spend, from redefining which drugs or drug classes are considered “preferred” to adopting reference-based pricing (where employees pay the difference for more expensive drugs in the same class) or consumer-driven health plans. (One strategy they won’t try: buying drugs from Canada. “It’s technically illegal,” observes Sean Brandle, vice president at The Segal Co.)
In Towers Perrin’s health-care cost survey for 2005, more than 60 percent of employers responding said they are considering new approaches to the prescription-drug benefits they offer. Like Wayne Grubbs and Ann Denison, they are trying to at least slow down this alarmingly fast growing expense. According to an October 2004 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, $162.4 billion was spent on prescription drugs in the United States in 2002—four times the amount spent in 1990. “We have seen double-digit trends in prescription-drug costs for most of our employer clients dating back to 1999,” says Ron Fontanetta, a principal in the health and welfare practice at Towers Perrin.
What’s behind the rapid escalation of costs? Kaiser estimates that 42 percent of the increase between 1997 and 2002 was due to increased use of prescription drugs; about a third to shifts to newer, higher-cost drugs; and a quarter to manufacturers’ price increases. (It’s important to note that in some cases, higher drug costs may be balanced by reduced health-care costs elsewhere, as when drug treatment replaces surgery. Changing medical guidelines for treating such conditions as high cholesterol also, arguably, reduce the long-term cost of heart disease.)