Insurers blame specialty drug costs for rising premiums. This report from California shows why

Drugs and money sign
Insurers in California—including Aetna, Anthem, Cigna, Kaiser Permanente and United Healthcare—reported spending upward of $606 million on specialty drugs in 2017. (Getty/ADragan)

Specialty drugs made up about 3% of prescriptions in California in 2017 but accounted for more than half of the prescription drug spending that year, according to new report that compiled drug spending from nine insurers in that state.

According to the first Prescription Drug Cost Transparency Report released by the California Department of Insurance, there were about 270,000 specialty prescriptions compared to about 1.4 million brand-name prescriptions and about 8.9 million generic prescriptions in 2017.

Insurers—including Aetna, Anthem, Cigna, Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealthcare—reported spending upward of $606 million on specialty drugs, $271.3 million on brand-name drugs and $172.6 million on generics in 2017.

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Among other findings, the report said: 

  • In all, insurers reported that per member per month drug spending reached about $81 last year, or about 16.5% of premiums in 2017, comparable to per member per month spending of about $76 or 16.3% in 2016. Total health insurance premiums per member per month were about $491 in 2017, compared to about $470 in 2016.
     
  • Specialty prescriptions on average cost about $2,361 per prescription compared to about $236 for brand-name prescriptions and $29 for generics. Members typically pay about $113 per specialty prescription while insurers said they pay about $2,248 per specialty drug. They report members pay about $45 per brand-name drug, while insurers pick up $192 of the tab for brand names. And they report members typically pay about $10 for generics on average while insurers pay about $19.
     
  • The top 25 most frequently prescribed drugs in California represent about 40% of insurers' overall spending. Specialty drugs make up about 1.3% of the 25 most frequently prescribed drugs and about 20% of insurers' spending (resulting in a 3.7% impact on health insurance premiums.) In comparison, brand-name drugs make up about 6.8% of the most frequently prescribed drugs and about 11% of insurer spending (and a 1.2% impact on health insurance premiums). Generics represent about 32% of the most frequently prescribed drugs and 4% of the cost to insurers (and about .3% impact on premiums.) 

RELATED: Cigna CFO says push to control specialty drug costs drove Express Scripts acquisition

The most frequently prescribed specialty drugs included HIV drug Truvada, immunosuppressant Humira, insulin therapeutic Humalog, diabetes drug Victoza and hormonal agent Androgel. The most costly specialty drugs by total annual prescription drug spending included Humira, arthritis drug Enbrel, Truvada, psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis drug Stelara and multiple sclerosis drug Copaxone.