If your case is average, your managed care plan spends about $117 on you each year for prescription medicines. The typical managed care plan spends a considerable chunk of its budget -- an average of 11% -- on prescription drug costs, according to the SMG Marketing Group in Chicago, which gathers this data each year.
So from a business point of view it's understandable why managed care organizations want to cut costs on prescription drugs as much as they can.
Thus was born the formulary -- the list of drugs that doctors may prescribe under the plan. Typically, a managed care plan relies on a committee made up of physicians and others to decide which drugs will appear on its formulary. The committee evaluates the safety and effectiveness of each drug, and if they judge that two drugs are equally effective, they generally opt for the one that costs less.
Some disgruntled consumers say formularies are all about saving money. But that's not so, says Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Health Plans, an industry organization in Washington, D.C. "Formularies are put together with quality trumping cost," she says.
But drug manufacturers pressure the committees to include their products, says Steven Gray, PharmD, the pharmacy professional affairs director for the California division of Kaiser Permanente. "Drug manufacturers' sales representatives are trained and motivated to sell their drugs, and there are big bucks involved."
Complaints about formularies are common, says Laurie Norris, a supervising counselor for the Health Rights Hotline, a pilot project based in Sacramento, California, that helps consumers navigate managed care. "It's one of our highest reported problems," she says. What's more, she says, "managed care plans change formularies constantly," making matters more complicated.
Consumers may get some help if a new federal bill becomes law. Introduced in November and called the Patients' Formulary Rights Act of 1999, the bill would require managed care plans to inform their members about their formularies, provide them with a list of included drugs, and tell them how they can continue to get needed drugs if the formulary changes.
In the meantime, though, most consumers with formulary problems must be their own advocates. So what if there's a drug you need and it's not on the formulary? Or suppose you change HMOs and the prescription drug you've been taking successfully for months isn't on the new plan's list? What can you do?