Employers use patient assistance programs to offset their own costs

Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Business News

Anna Sutton was shocked when she received a letter from her husband’s job-based health plan stating that Humira, an expensive drug used to treat her daughter’s juvenile arthritis, was now on a long list of medications considered “nonessential benefits.”

The July 2021 letter said the family could either participate in a new effort overseen by a company called SaveOnSP and get the drug free of charge or be saddled with a monthly copayment that could top $1,000.

“It really gave us no choice,” said Sutton, of Woodinville, Washington. She added that “every single FDA-approved medication for juvenile arthritis” was on the list of nonessential benefits.

Sutton had unwittingly become part of a strategy that employers are using to deal with the high cost of drugs prescribed to treat conditions such as arthritis, psoriasis, cancer, and hemophilia.

Those employers are tapping into dollars provided through programs they have previously criticized: patient financial assistance initiatives set up by drugmakers, which some benefit managers have complained encourage patients to stay on expensive brand-name drugs when less expensive options might be available.

Now, though, employers, or the vendors and insurers they hire specifically to oversee such efforts, are seeking that money to offset their own costs. Drugmakers object, saying the money was intended primarily for patients. But some benefit brokers and companies like SaveOnSP say they can help trim employers’ spending on insurance — which, they say, could be the difference between an employer offering coverage to workers or not.


It’s the latest twist in a long-running dispute between the drug industry and insurers over which group is more to blame for rising costs to patients. And patients are, again, caught in the middle.

Patient advocates say the term “nonessential” stresses patients out even though it doesn’t mean the drugs — often called “specialty” drugs because of their high prices or the way they are made — are unnecessary.

Some advocates fear the new strategies could be “a way to weed out those with costly health care needs,” said Rachel Klein, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group. Workers who rely on the drugs may feel pressured to change insurers or jobs, Klein said.

Two versions of the new strategy are in play. Both are used mainly by self-insured employers that hire vendors, like SaveOnSP, which then work with the employers’ pharmacy benefit managers, such as Express Scripts/Cigna, to implement the strategy. There are also smaller vendors, like SHARx and Payer Matrix, some of which work directly with employers.


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