Health overhaul shows huge drug-cost disparities
Cancer patients could face high costs for medications under President Barack Obama’s health-care law, industry analysts and advocates warn.
Where you live could make a huge difference in what you’ll pay.
To try to keep premiums low, some states are letting insurers charge patients a hefty share of the cost for expensive medications used to treat cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and other life-altering chronic diseases.
Such “specialty drugs” can cost thousands of dollars a month, and in California, patients would pay up to 30 percent of the cost. For one widely used cancer drug, Gleevec, the patient could pay more than $2,000 for a month’s supply, says the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
New York is taking a different approach, setting flat dollar co-payments for medications. The highest is $70, and it would apply to specialty drugs as well.
Critics fear most states will follow California’s lead, and that could defeat the purpose of Obama’s overhaul, because some of the sickest patients may be unable to afford their prescriptions.
“It’s important that the benefit design not discriminate against people with chronic illness, and high co-pays do that,” said Dan Mendelson, president of Avalere Health, a data-analysis firm catering to the health-care industry and government.
Avalere’s research shows that 1 in 4 cancer patients walks away from the pharmacy counter empty- handed when facing a co-pay of $500 or more for a newly prescribed drug.
“You have to worry about a world where if you happen to contract cancer or multiple sclerosis, you are stuck with a really big bill,” Mendelson said. “It’s going to be very important for states to take a long, hard look at their benefit design.”
Although the money for covering uninsured Americans is coming from Washington, the heath-care law gives states broad leeway to tailor benefits, and the local approach also can let disparities emerge.
A spokesman for Covered California said state officials are trying to balance between two conflicting priorities: comprehensive coverage and affordable premiums.
“We are trying to keep the insurance affordable across the board,” said Dana Howard, the group’s spokesman. “This is just part of trying to manage the overall risk of the pool.” Covered California is one of the new state marketplaces where people who don’t get coverage on the job will be able to shop for private insurance starting this fall. Coverage takes effect Jan. 1.