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January 13, 2016

Harvard Business Review

Who Has the Power to Cut Drug Prices? Employers.

By Roger Longman

Why do medications cost so much, particularly specialty drugs that treat the most serious conditions? Mostly because U.S. drug companies can price them however they want. Some of their justifications are reasonable — for instance, high prices fund research. Others, like the notion that drug treatment lowers total medical costs, are far from proven.

But pharmaceutical companies don’t deserve all of the blame for high drug prices. Lots of other actors in purchasing, distribution, and brokerage have greater incentives to keep prices high than to lower prices or choose drugs that reduce longer-term medical and business costs, like absenteeism.

We believe that employers have the greatest potential to influence some of those actors and, ultimately, to chip away at high drug prices. To appreciate the power that employers have in this area, you must first understand how competing incentives work in the world of drug pricing.

Competing Incentives

Hospitals, for example, can take advantage of the 340B pricing program, which allows them to buy drugs at 30% to 50% of the retail price but then bill at full price for patients with insurance. And even organizations that, theoretically, are paid to help hold down drug costs sometimes have incentives to do the opposite. Take insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), which are hired to manage drug costs for employer-based health plans.

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