Jennifer Polinski and colleagues estimated the effect of the "coverage gap" during which US Medicare beneficiaries are fully responsible for drug costs and found that the gap was associated with a doubling in discontinuing essential medications.
Nations are struggling to expand access to essential medications while curbing rising health and drug spending. While the US government's Medicare Part D drug insurance benefit expanded elderly citizens' access to drugs, it also includes a controversial period called the “coverage gap” during which beneficiaries are fully responsible for drug costs. We examined the impact of entering the coverage gap on drug discontinuation, switching to another drug for the same indication, and drug adherence. While increased discontinuation of and adherence to essential medications is a regrettable response, increased switching to less expensive but therapeutically interchangeable medications is a positive response to minimize costs.
Methods and Findings
We followed 663,850 Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in Part D or retiree drug plans with prescription and health claims in 2006 and/or 2007 to determine who reached the gap spending threshold, n = 217,131 (33%). In multivariate Cox proportional hazards models, we compared drug discontinuation and switching rates in selected drug classes after reaching the threshold between all 1,993 who had no financial assistance during the coverage gap (exposed) versus 9,965 multivariate propensity score-matched comparators with financial assistance (unexposed). Multivariate logistic regressions compared drug adherence (≤80% versus >80% of days covered). Beneficiaries reached the gap spending threshold on average 222 d ±79. At the drug level, exposed beneficiaries were twice as likely to discontinue (hazard ratio [HR] = 2.00, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.64–2.43) but less likely to switch a drug (HR = 0.60, 0.46–0.78) after reaching the threshold. Gap-exposed beneficiaries were slightly more likely to have reduced adherence (OR = 1.07, 0.98–1.18).
A lack of financial assistance after reaching the gap spending threshold was associated with a doubling in discontinuing essential medications but not switching drugs in 2006 and 2007. Blunt cost-containment features such as the coverage gap have an adverse impact on drug utilization that may conceivably affect health outcomes.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every year, more effective drugs for more diseases become available. But the availability of so many drugs poses a problem. How can governments provide their citizens with access to essential medications but control drug costs? Many different approaches have been tried, among them the “coverage gap” or “donut hole” approach that the US government has incorporated into its Medicare program. Medicare is the US government's health insurance program for people aged 65 or older and for younger people with specific conditions. Nearly 50 million US citizens are enrolled in Medicare. In 2006, the government introduced a prescription drug insurance benefit called Medicare Part D to help patients pay for their drugs. Until recently, beneficiaries of this scheme had to pay all their drug costs after their drug spending reached an initial threshold in any calendar year ($2,830 in 2010). Beneficiaries remained in this coverage gap (although people on low incomes received subsidies to help them pay for their drugs) until their out-of-pocket spending reached a catastrophic coverage spending threshold ($4,550 in 2010) or a new year started, after which the Part D benefit paid for most drug costs. Importantly, the 2010 US health reforms have mandated a gradual reduction in the amount that Medicare Part D enrollees have to pay for their prescriptions when they reach the coverage gap.
Why Was This Study Done?
Three to four million Medicare Part D beneficiaries reach the coverage gap every year (nearly 15% of all Part D beneficiaries). Supporters of the coverage gap concept argue that withdrawal of benefits increases beneficiaries' awareness of medication costs and encourages switching to cost-effective therapeutic options. However, critics argue that the coverage gap is likely to lead to decreased drug utilization, increased use of health services, and adverse outcomes. In this study, the researchers examine the impact of entering the coverage gap on drug discontinuation, switching to another drug for the same indication, and drug adherence (whether patients take their prescribed drugs regularly).
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers studied 663,850 Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in Part D or in retiree drug plans (which provide coverage under a employer's group health plan after retirement; the retiree drug plans included in this study did not have coverage gaps) who made prescription claims in 2006 and/or 2007. A third of these individuals reached the gap spending threshold. The researchers used detailed statistical analyses to compare the drug discontinuation, switching, and adherence rates of 1,993 beneficiaries who had no financial assistance during the coverage gap (exposed beneficiaries) with those of 9,965 matched beneficiaries who had financial assistance during the coverage gap (unexposed). On average, beneficiaries reached the gap spending threshold 222 days into the year (mid August). In a drug-level analysis, exposed beneficiaries were twice as likely to discontinue a drug and slightly more likely to have reduced drug adherence than unexposed beneficiaries but 40% less likely to switch a drug after reaching the threshold. Similar results were obtained in a beneficiary-level analysis in which discontinuation, switching, and adherence rates were considered in terms of the complete drug regimen of individual beneficiaries.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that, among the Medicare beneficiaries investigated, a lack of financial assistance to pay for drugs after reaching the coverage gap spending threshold led to a doubling in the rate of drug discontinuation and a slight reduction in drug adherence. Surprisingly, lack of financial assistance resulted in a decrease in drug switching even though the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services advise patients to consider switching to generic or low-cost drugs. Importantly, the researchers estimate that, for the whole Medicare population, the lack of financial assistance to pay for drugs could result in an additional 18,000 patients discontinuing one or more prescription drug per year. Although this study did not directly investigate the effect of the coverage gap on patient outcomes, these findings suggest that this and other blunt cost-containment approaches could adversely affect health outcomes through their effects on drug utilization. Thus, insurance strategies that specifically promote the use of drugs with high benefit but low cost might be a better approach for governments seeking to improve the health of their citizens while reining in drug costs.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001075.
The US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid provides information on all aspects of Medicare, including general advice on bridging the coverage gap and an information sheet on bridging the coverage gap in 2011
Medicare.gov, the official US government website for Medicare, provides information on all aspects of Medicare (in English and Spanish), including a description of Part D prescription drug coverage
An information sheet from the Kaiser Family Foundation explains the key changes to the Medicare Part D drug benefit coverage gap that were introduced in the 2010 health care reforms
MedlinePlus provides links to further information about Medicare (in English and Spanish)