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Health care law can't suppress drug costs for sickest

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By The Associated Press
Saturday, March 22, 2014, 5:42 p.m.
 

MIAMI — Breast cancer survivor Ginny Mason was thrilled to get health coverage under the Affordable Care Act despite her pre-existing condition. But when she realized her arthritis medication fell under a particularly costly tier of her plan, she was forced to switch to another brand.

Under the plan, her Celebrex would have cost $648 a month until she met her $1,500 prescription deductible, followed by an $85 monthly co-pay.

Mason is one of the many Americans with serious illnesses — including cancer, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis — who are indeed finding relatively low monthly premiums under President Obama's law. But some have been shocked at how much their prescriptions are costing as insurers are sorting drug prices into a complex tier system and in some cases charging co-insurance rates as high as 50 percent. That can leave patients on the hook for thousands.

“I was grateful for the Affordable Care Act because it didn't turn me down, but ... it's like, where's the ‘affordable' on this one?” said Mason, a 61-year-old from West Lafayette, Ind., who pays an $800 monthly premium.

Before the federal health law took effect, Mason paid slightly more for her monthly premium on a plan that did not cover her arthritis or pain medications and some routine doctor's visits.

Avalere Health, a market research and consulting firm, estimates some consumers will pay half the cost of their specialty drugs under health overhaul-related plans, while customers in the private market typically pay no more than a third. Patient advocates worry that insurers may be trying to discourage chronically ill patients from enrolling by putting high-cost drugs onto specialty tiers.

Brian Rosen, senior vice president for public policy for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, said the group studied premiums and benefits for patients with blood cancer in seven states, including Florida, California, Texas and New York. They found 50 percent co-insurance rates for specialty drugs on several plans in Florida and Texas, while the highest co-insurance rates on California plans were 30 percent, and in New York, co-pays were typically $70.

Under the law, insurers cannot charge an individual more than $6,350 in out-of pocket costs a year and no more than $12,700 for a family policy. But patients advocates warn those with serious illnesses could pay their entire out-of-pocket cap before their insurance kicks in any money.

“The challenge is for the sickest patients, the ones that need access to these specialty drugs, the costs are going to come in most cases from that out-of-pocket cap. ... They are likely to hit that $6,350 ceiling and in some cases quickly,” said Rosen.

Insurers say prescription drugs are one of the main reasons health care costs are rising.

“Spending on specialty drugs is growing rapidly. It's unsustainable,” said Clare Krusing, spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group that represents the private insurance industry.

Only 1 percent of prescriptions written in 2012 were for specialty drugs, but they accounted for 25 percent of the total cost of prescription drugs, according to a study by America's Health Insurance Plans.

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