Ezra Klein spoke with Robert Zirkelbach of America’s Health Insurance Plans regarding Tier 4 medications. Mr. Zirkelbach’s response hits a few points:
That we need a “national conversation” about “whether drugs that cost ten or a hundred times as much as current treatment options are producing better outcomes.” (Whatever your opinion of Hillary Clinton, I’m not particularly grateful for the insertion of the phrase “national conversation” into the political lexicon. A little less talk, a little more action, as Elvis would say.)
In this case, I would say we don’t need a “conversation” about better outcomes. We need data. It’s a research question, not a political one. If these therapies are better than the alternative, then we need a conversation – but it has to be about our level of willingness to provide insurance that pays for the best available treatment. That’s a debate worth having, and it’s also where we need some of that transparency Jonathan Cohn calls for.
Mr. Zirkelbach says we should encourage “generic versions” of Tier 4 drugs. But, as Ezra points out, they’re not likely to be available.
Comparing New and Current Treatment Options
Lastly, Zirkelbach suggests “we need a national system in this country that compares new drugs with the treatment options currently available in the marketplace.” That’s a good point. Even under single-payer coverage, we would still need to do cost/benefit analyses on very expensive therapies – and not just for pharmaceuticals. The more information that’s made publicly available, and the more education and debate that ensues, the better.
I still say there is a point at which “insurance” becomes a misnomer. What that point may be is somewhat subjective, but in theory it’s this: When the coverage being provided no longer protects individuals from severe financial harm as a result of loss.
And I’d add this thought to the “national conversation”: When plan designs are no longer made to change behavior, but simply to transfer high-cost items back to the insured party, that’s risk transfer and not benefit design. As a result, the insurance concept is being subtly modified – and arguably undermined.