Co-Pay Assistance Programs Fail to Help Uninsured Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Co-pay assistance programs – also known as co-pay charities – are ostensibly designed to help needy patients pay for prescription drugs. But a new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that nearly all co-pay programs fail to cover uninsured patients who need financial help the most.

The researchers also found that co-pay programs were more likely to cover high-cost, brand-name prescription drugs, despite the availability of lower-priced generic medications. The findings are published online in JAMA.

“Independent patient assistance programs favor higher-priced drugs, and the higher the drug price, the higher the likelihood of it being covered,” says co-author Gerard Anderson, PhD, professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management. “Unfortunately patients with the greatest financial needs -- people without health insurance -- do not qualify for these programs.”

Anderson and his colleagues looked at the six largest charity organizations, which ran 274 different patient assistance programs in 2018.

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Most of the programs only covered drugs for cancer-related conditions or genetic and rare diseases. None offered free drugs and typically they only covered the most expensive medications.

“Only covering insured patients may help these programs cover more patients with their limited funds,” said lead author So-Yeon Kang, MPH, a research assistant in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management. “But leaving out the uninsured diminishes the charitable aspects of these organizations supported by tax-exempted donations.”

Misconduct Widespread

Patient assistance programs run by independent charities are usually funded by pharmaceutical companies. Federal investigations into several co-pay assistance programs led to multimillion-dollar settlements with drug companies for allegedly steering patients to their higher-priced drugs.

Over the past year, Pfizer, Amgen, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Astellas Pharma, Lundbeck and Alexion have all paid heavy fines to settle allegations that they used co-pay programs to defraud Medicare. Federal anti-kickback laws prohibit pharmaceutical companies from making any kind of payment to induce Medicare patients to purchase their drugs. The prohibition includes co-pays.

“We are committed to ensuring that pharmaceutical companies do not use third-party foundations to pay kickbacks masking the high prices those companies charge for their drugs,”  U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement. “This misconduct is widespread, and enforcement will continue until pharmaceutical companies stop circumventing the anti-kickback laws to artificially bolster high drug prices, all at the expense of American taxpayers.”

Similar allegations were made against Insys Therapeutics and the “Gain Against Pain” co-pay program run by the U.S. Pain Foundation. Insys donated over $3.1 million to U.S. Pain, with most of the money going to its co-pay program to help patients pay for Subsys, an expensive fentanyl spray made by Insys. A four-day supply of Subsys can cost nearly $24,000.

The founder of Insys and four former executives were recently found guilty of racketeering charges unrelated to the co-pay program. The company also agreed to pay $225 million in fines and penalties to settle criminal and civil investigations. U.S. Pain ended the “Gain Against Pain” program in 2018 and said it would no longer accept funding from Insys.

In an editorial, Katherine Kraschel, a lecturer at Yale Law School, and Gregory Curfman, MD, deputy editor of JAMA, called for more oversight of co-pay programs to make sure they help patients who truly need it.

“Although patient assistance programs may provide important financial relief for patients, the current patient assistance program structure largely neglects uninsured individuals,” they wrote.  “Absent other regulatory interventions, the Department of Justice needs to continue to scrutinize patient assistance program practices, and the Internal Revenue Service and state attorneys general should examine the tax-exempt status of patient assistance programs.”