KFF Health News — Health insurers and medical providers are battling over who should supply high-cost infusion drugs for patients, with the tussle over profits now spilling into statehouses across the country.
The issue is that some insurers are bypassing hospital pharmacies and physician offices and instead sending more complex drugs through third-party pharmacies. Those pharmacies then send the medications directly to the medical provider or facility for outpatient infusing, which is called “white bagging,” or, more rarely, to patients, in what is called “brown bagging.” That shifts who gets to buy and bill for these complex medications, including pricey chemotherapy drugs.
Insurers say the policies are needed because hospital markups are too high. But hospitals argue that adding an intermediary results in unnecessary risks and delays, and they say some insurers have their own or affiliated pharmacy companies, creating financial motives for controlling the source of the medications. The patients, meanwhile, are left to deal with the red tape.
Paula Bruton Shepard in Bolivar, Missouri, is among those caught in the middle. Flares of lupus rob Shepard of her mobility by attacking her joints. She relies on monthly infusions to treat her symptoms. But at times, she said, her treatments were delayed due to UnitedHealthcare’s white bagging infusion policy. And interruptions to her treatments exacerbated her symptoms.
This is a tug of war over profits between insurers and medical providers, said Ge Bai, a professor of accounting and health policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. While insurers claim the arrangement reduces costs, she said, that doesn’t mean insurers pass along savings to patients.
“I don’t think we should have more sympathy toward one party or the other,” Bai said. “Nobody is better than the other. They’re all trying to make money.”
The savings from white bagging can be significant for expensive infusion drugs, according to a report from the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission. For example, Remicade (infliximab), which is used to treat a variety of inflammatory diseases, cost, on average, $1106 per unit in 2015 under hospitals’ traditional buy-and-bill system, the commission found in its review of state claims data. That same drug cost an average of $975 per unit under white bagging, a 12% savings.
But the report also found that patients, on average, faced higher cost sharing for Remicade and other drugs when white bagging was used. While some patients had only modest increases to their costs under the policy, such as $12 more for a medication, the review found it could mean much greater cost sharing for some patients, such as those on Medicare.
At Citizens Memorial Hospital in rural Bolivar, more than 1 in 4 patients who receive regular infusions are being forced to use an outside pharmacy, said Mariah Hollabaugh, the hospital’s pharmacy director. Shepard was among them.
Even if the hospital has the exact drug on the shelf, patients must wait for a separate shipment, Hollabaugh said, potentially interrupting care. Their shipped drugs may sometimes be unusable when the doctor needs to change the dosage. Or the medicine comes in a nondescript package that doesn’t get immediately flagged for the pharmacy, potentially subjecting the drugs to damaging temperature fluctuations. For patients, that can mean delays in care.
“They’re in pain, they’re uncomfortable,” Hollabaugh said. “They may be having symptoms that don’t allow them to go to work.”
Siteman Cancer Center, led by physicians from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has confronted the same issue. But the cancer center’s size has helped it largely avoid such insurer policies.
John DiPersio, a Siteman oncologist and researcher who led the university’s oncology division for more than 2 decades, said Siteman reluctantly allows white bagging for simple injectables but refuses to accept it for complicated chemotherapies. It does not accept brown bagging. Occasionally, he said, that means turning patients away.
“You’re talking about cancer patients that are getting life-threatening treatments,” DiPersio said, referring to the dangers of chemotherapy drugs, which he said can be fatal if used improperly. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s all stupid. It’s all lunacy.”
This article originally appeared on Cancer Therapy Advisor