Pay for Performance Comes to Ambulatory Pharmaceuticals

The New York Times reports today that two pharmaceutical companies are entering the “pay for performance” market to preserve lower patient copayments for their expensive brand name medicines and maintain or grow market share. This is modeled after a Johnson and Johnson deal with the British NHS to offer refunds for an expensive oncology medicine if it did not shrink an individual patients’ tumor(s). See an earlier blog on how the British comparative effectiveness program led to this discount offer.

Merck will give discounts to the insurer Cigna on its diabetes medicine Januvia (and combination pill Janumet) if Cigna patients in the aggregate have lower blood sugars, and the makers of Actonel, an osteoporosis medication, will give a small insurer cash payments for adherent patients on this medication who have osteoporosis-related fractures. There are alternative far cheaper generic medications that can readily substitute for Actonel and Januvia/Janumet.

The Times does not mention that drug companies are subject to a “most favored nation” clause which guarantees Medicaid programs the lowest price – so that any price concession to even a small insurer can lead to large rebate checks for every state Medicaid programs. In general (and counterintuitively), this most favored nation arrangement keeps prices unnecessarily high – since it enforces price discipline among the pharmaceutical companies. My sense is that a refund for nonperformance would not “count” as a discount, and therefore this approach allows the pharmas to offer lower rates to the most price-sensitive health plans without jeopardizing Medicaid rates.

On one hand, this is a good move. Pharmaceutical companies are selling a result (lower blood sugars and fewer nonspine fractures) rather than selling a pill.

Will this lead to lower health care costs? My guess is “no,” since these are very expensive drugs, and even discounts or refunds are not likely to bring them down to the true cost of generic alternatives. There is a better argument that Januvia represents a real advance over other oral diabetes medicines. However, I doubt that the incremental value of Januvia, even with the discounts Cigna will obtain, will be cost-saving, as opposed to cost-effective. This also leads to some opacity in the pharmaceutical market, which will allow for more price discrimination and likely yield higher pharma margins. Even if this yields higher overall costs and higher pharma margins, though, it might lead to increased value in the health care delivery system.