By GINA KOLATA
The New York Times
April 14, 2008
Health insurance companies are rapidly adopting a new pricing system for very expensive drugs, asking patients to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for prescriptions for medications that may save their lives or slow the progress of serious diseases. With the new pricing system, insurers abandoned the traditional arrangement that has patients pay a fixed amount, like $10, $20 or $30 for a prescription, no matter what the drug’s actual cost.
Instead, they are charging patients a percentage of the cost of certain high-priced drugs, usually 20 to 33 percent, which can amount to thousands of dollars a month. The system means that the burden of expensive health care can now affect insured people, too. No one knows how many patients are affected, but hundreds of drugs are priced this new way.
They are used to treat diseases that may be fairly common, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, hemophilia, hepatitis C and some cancers. There are no cheaper equivalents for these drugs, so patients are forced to pay the price or do without. Insurers say the new system keeps everyone’s premiums down at a time when some of the most innovative and promising new treatments for conditions like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis can cost $100,000 and more a year.
But the result is that patients may have to spend more for a drug than they pay for their mortgages, more, in some cases, than their monthly incomes. The system, often called Tier 4, began in earnest with Medicare drug plans and spread rapidly. It is now incorporated into 86 percent of those plans. Some have even higher co-payments for certain drugs, a Tier 5.
Now Tier 4 is also showing up in insurance that people buy on their own or acquire through employers, said Dan Mendelson of Avalere Health, a research organization in Washington. It is the fastest-growing segment in private insurance, Mr. Mendelson said. Five years ago it was virtually nonexistent in private plans, he said. Now 10 percent of them have Tier 4 drug categories.
Private insurers began offering Tier 4 plans in response to employers who were looking for ways to keep costs down, said Karen Ignagni, president of Americas Health Insurance Plans, which represents most of the nations health insurers. When people who need Tier 4 drugs pay more for them, other subscribers in the plan pay less for their coverage.
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