[Senate Hearing 107-631]
[From the U.S. Government Printing Office]
S. Hrg. 107-631
PRESCRIPTION DRUG ISSUES IN THE DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
UNITED STATES SENATE
ONE HUNDRED SEVENTH CONGRESS
JULY 24, 2001
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COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER IV, West Virginia, Chairman
BOB GRAHAM, Florida ARLEN SPECTER, Pennsylvania
JAMES M. JEFFORDS, Vermont STROM THURMOND, South Carolina
DANIEL K. AKAKA, Hawaii FRANK H. MURKOWSKI, Alaska
PAUL WELLSTONE, Minnesota BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL, Colorado
PATTY MURRAY, Washington LARRY E. CRAIG, Idaho
ZELL MILLER, Georgia TIM HUTCHINSON, Arkansas
E. BENJAMIN NELSON, Nebraska KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, Texas
William E. Brew, Chief Counsel
William F. Tuerk, Minority Chief Counsel and Staff Director
C O N T E N T S
July 24, 2001
Campbell, Hon. Ben Nighthorse, U.S. Senator from Colorado,
prepared statement............................................. 3
Rockefeller, Hon. John D., IV, U.S. Senator from West Virginia,
prepared statement............................................. 2
Bascetta, Cynthia A., Director, Health Care, Veterans' Health
Care and Benefits Issues, U.S. General Accounting Office....... 34
Prepared statement........................................... 36
Griffin, Richard J., Inspector General, Department of Veterans
Prepared statement........................................... 15
Herdman, Roger, M.D., Director, National Cancer Policy Board,
Institute of Medicine.......................................... 42
Prepared statement........................................... 44
Miller, Michael D., M.D., Consultant to the Pharmaceutical
Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA)................. 48
Prepared statement........................................... 51
Principi, Hon. Anthony J., Secretary, Department of Veterans
Prepared statement........................................... 9
Response to written questions submitted by Hon. John D.
Rockefeller IV............................................. 12
Armstrong, Moe, on behalf of the National Alliance for the
Mentally Ill, prepared statement............................... 69
Garrick, Jacqueline, ACSW, CSW, CTS, Deputy Director, Health
Care, National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission,
The American Legion, prepared statement........................ 72
Hills, Richard W., Jr., President, Veterans Network for the
Mentally Ill, prepared statement............................... 75
PRESCRIPTION DRUG ISSUES IN THE DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
TUESDAY, JULY 24, 2001
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The committee met, pursuant to notice, at 2:35 p.m., in
room SR-418, Russell Senate Office Building, Hon. John D.
Rockefeller IV (chairman of the committee) presiding.
Present: Senators Rockefeller, Wellstone, Miller, Nelson,
Specter, Campbell, and Craig.
Chairman Rockefeller. I will make an opening statement and
others are welcome to do that. The hearing will be called.
I have spent most of my last several weeks to order
negotiating prescription drug benefits for the non-VA
population, and it is an unbelievably complicated, contentious,
and sometimes rather ideological, sometimes theological
subject. But some things are very clear, and let it be said
here, Medicare beneficiaries need a prescription drug benefit.
We have to come through one way or another.
We have to come through, and we have to come through with a
decent drug benefit, not just a drug benefit--but a decent drug
benefit, which is all made the harder because of the tax cut
bill which we have passed which has constrained what we can
spend to an amount which may, in fact, not equate to a decent
drug benefit--all of which we have to factor in as we look at
it in the non-VA sector.
The reason that the Medicare beneficiaries need it is
because they are forced to choose between drugs and other human
needs, which we hear about a lot. But there is another reason
that we have to make sure that Medicare beneficiaries get
prescription drugs and that is the reason which brings us here
this afternoon--they need it because their lack of an
affordable prescription drug benefit is, in fact, cutting into
the services provided for our Nation's veterans. So the two are
inextricably linked. What we don't do for one hurts the other,
in this case, the veterans, hence this hearing.
I don't think it will come as a surprise to the people in
this room that there is substantial cost shifting going on
here. While a drug benefit remains out of reach for many in
Medicare, veterans over 65 years of age are turning now in
extraordinarily increasing numbers to the VA for low-cost
prescription drugs. These are the low-cost prescription drugs
which some of us helped negotiate back in 1992 and it became a
model of how you leverage volume for low cost. So as a result,
the VA is incurring increasingly high expenditures.
Others who raise concerns about the high cost of a Medicare
drug benefit don't seem to understand that the government is
already paying for the drugs of older patients in many cases.
Veterans with other health care options are, in fact, coming in
droves to the VA, many of them for the sole purpose of getting
inexpensive prescription drugs. I do not blame them for that,
but that is something that needs to be talked about.
They tell VA doctors that they are not coming for VA care
and they tell me that they are not coming for VA care. They are
coming for low-cost prescription drugs. But, obviously, before
a drug can be prescribed, a patient has to be examined, and,
therefore, the VA physician has that responsibility and then
only at that point can prescribe a drug. As a result, we
sometimes end up with a duplication of health care services.
So this cost shifting, together with an expensive tax cut,
which I have already mentioned, has handcuffed us powerfully--
powerfully--and that means that the VA health care system is
being and will be shortchanged. I have said that at earlier
hearings. A byproduct of that could mean that enrollment for
higher income veterans might be put at risk. I don't know if
that is the case. I, and I think all members of this committee,
don't want to see these veterans pushed out of the Department
of Veterans Affairs. But at some point, we have got to deal
with these problems.
I will do everything in my power to make sure that VA has
the resources to care for all veterans, regardless. We changed
the eligibility status. When we change the eligibility status,
we change the habits, the expectations of veterans of whatever
age and income to be able to ask for service. But we must be
concerned and note that there are very major problems.
The veterans' health care system is under a financial
attack. VA expenditures on prescription drugs have increased
dramatically, as I have indicated.
So now we are going to hear more about this this afternoon,
because this is what our hearing is about, as well as what
works and what doesn't work and what we might do in the area of
cost containment, for example, for prescription drugs. We also
have a proposal from the VA to increase the prescription drug
copayment from $2, which folks are accustomed to paying, to $7.
If you do the math, on certain kinds of incomes, that can
become a burden, a very heavy burden in the State that I
represent, in any event, and we need to learn more about that
and the need for that and the thinking behind that. So these
are serious issues that have spillover effects into other
aspects of our health care systems. They will directly affect
who gets to enroll for VA health care.
[The prepared statement of Senator Rockefeller follows:]
Prepared Statement of Hon. John D. Rockefeller IV, U.S. Senator From
Good afternoon. I've said it before in other forums, and I
will say it here: Medicare beneficiaries need a prescription
drug benefit. They need it because too many seniors are forced
to choose between prescription drugs and other basic needs. But
there is another reason Medicare beneficiaries need a drug
benefit--a reason which brings us here today--they need it
because their lack of affordable prescription drugs is cutting
into services provided to our Nation's veterans.
I don't think it will come as a surprise to the people in
this room that there is substantial cost shifting going on
here. While a drug benefit remains out of reach for many in
Medicare, veterans over 65 years of age are turning to VA for
low-cost prescription drugs in significant numbers. As a
result, VA is incurring increasingly high expenditures. Others
who raise concerns about the high cost of a Medicare drug
benefit don't seem to understand that the government is already
paying for drugs for older patients in many cases.
Veterans with other health care options are coming in
droves to VA--many of them for the sole purpose of getting
inexpensive prescription drugs. They tell the VA doctors that
they are not coming for VA care, and they have told me that.
However, because VA rightly must examine each patient before
dispensing medications, we end up with a duplication of health
This cost shifting, together with an expensive tax cut that
has handcuffed us financially, means the VA health care system
will be short changed. A byproduct of that could mean that
enrollment for higher income veterans might be put at risk. I,
and I think all members of this Committee, don't want to see
these veterans pushed out of VA.
I will do everything in my power to make sure that VA has
the resources to care for all veterans who choose to come to
VA. But we must be concerned and note that there are major
problems. The veterans health care system is under financial
attack. VA expenditures on prescription drugs have increased
We will hear more about that this afternoon, as well as
what works and what doesn't work in the area of cost
containment for prescription drugs. We also have a proposal
from VA to increase the prescription drug copayment--from $2 to
$7--and we need to learn more about that. These are serious
issues with spillover to other health care systems. And they
will directly affect who gets to enroll for VA health care.
I'm very pleased to welcome our witnesses today, especially
our distinguished VA Secretary, Anthony Principi, and the VA
Inspector General, Richard Griffin. Your presence here today
signals the seriousness of these issues. I look forward to
hearing from you both. And I also appreciate the appearance of
Dr. Garthwaite and Michael Slachta.
Chairman Rockefeller. I am very pleased to welcome our
witnesses today, especially our distinguished Secretary,
Anthony Principi, and the VA Inspector General, Richard
Griffin, and others I will introduce at the proper time.
Having ended my statement, I would like to, in order, call
upon Senator Campbell, Senator Miller, Senator Wellstone, and
Senator Campbell. Mr. Chairman, I think I will just
introduce my comments for the record. I have some questions to
ask a little later, but do want to welcome Secretary Principi
and the panel to be with us today.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you, Senator.
[The prepared statement of Senator Campbell follows:]
Prepared Statement of Hon. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, U.S. Senator From
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thanks for holding today's hearing
to discuss VA pharmaceutical issues that will affect
prescription drug coverage for our veterans' community. And, I
want to thank my friend Secretary Principi and his colleagues
and the others who have come today to testify on these issues.
I recognize the efforts the Secretary and the VA have made thus
far in responding to the concerns of veterans.
As I mentioned at last week's hearing on homeless veterans,
I am concerned about the tight fiscal constraints faced by the
VA in 2002. Even though most of the increase in discretionary
funding will probably go to health care, I can only begin to
guess how it will affect the overall quality of benefits and
care received by our veterans. The current funding simply
cannot provide for the level and quality of care that is needed
in certain specialized programs like spinal cord injury.
Mr. Chairman, I look forward to today's testimony regarding
prescription drug coverage in the VA. The cost of prescription
drugs has contributed to massive increases in the cost of
health care in this country. And, now, with the aging of our
population, there will be a corresponding increase in the need
for multiple prescriptions. Even though the Veterans Health
Care Act of 1992 limits the prices that drug manufacturers can
charge the VA, those same dynamics will affect our veterans'
I want to commend the VA for its broad efforts to serve
more veterans with limited resources. While the restructuring
of the VA health care system that has taken place in the last
few years has been an enormous task, it has seemed to make
improvements in many regions throughout the country. I still
think it is shameful that vets have to go to Mexico to buy
medicine because they can't afford to buy at American
I look forward to working with the VA and with members of
the committee as we look at ways to ensure each deserving
veteran access to quality, affordable health care.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Chairman Rockefeller. Senator Miller?
Senator Miller. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I just want to
say, and I will have a question or two when we get to that
part, but I just want to say how much we all appreciate the
efforts that you and your staff continue to make on behalf of
our Nation's veterans. I especially want to thank you for this
prescription drug issue. That is an example of how you go about
The increasing demand for prescription drugs by our
veterans, we know must be appropriately addressed. I believe
that you are committed to finding the best solution from a
quality of service standpoint first and a value for the dollar
standpoint second and I encourage you to continue to evaluate,
improve the methods to find a way to dispense prescription
drugs to our veterans and make sure that they receive the first
class care and service that they deserve. Thank you, Mr.
Chairman Rockefeller. Senator Nelson, would you yield for a
moment to Senator Specter, who has just come?
Senator Nelson. Yes.
Chairman Rockefeller. I would appreciate it very much.
Senator Specter. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Thank
you for convening this hearing. The issue of prescription drugs
is one of overwhelming importance. Having Secretary Principi
here today and his distinguished supporting cast doubtless will
shed special insights into this very serious problem and
probably tell us how to solve it for seniors generally. So I am
looking forward to the testimony on a matter of enormous
We all know how expensive the drugs are and we do know that
our veteran population consists largely of men and women who
have problems, many of them connected to the service that they
worked for, some not provably so. Those expenses are
overwhelming and it is a matter of highest priority that the
Veterans Administration find an answer to provide the
appropriate help and, as I say, perhaps insights into the
problem for the community at large. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you, Senator Specter.
Senator Nelson. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I, too, would like
to thank the Secretary and your distinguished team for
appearing before us today as we look at the phenomenon of new
medicines that are available today that not only increase the
likelihood of one's good health and longevity, but also are now
in the process of accomplishing what previously could only be
accomplished through surgery, that we are now doing so with
less pain and sometimes at a lower cost. Sometimes the pain is
more in the cost than it is in the condition.
This was an outstanding accomplishment that Congress
succeeded in extending the prescription drug coverage to all
military retirees. Unfortunately, as we all know, those who
have only Medicare still lack the kind of coverage that we are
very fortunately extending to our military retirees. These
beneficiaries are now having the opportunity to obtain their
coverage for prescriptions through VA pharmacies and through
the system. We must, of course, pay close attention to the cost
not only to the government but the cost to the military
Later in the question period, I am going to raise a
question about the copay and the amount that it was raised and
the logic behind raising it from $2 to $7, but before I get to
that, let me congratulate your folks for working very
diligently to make sure that we are providing the right kind of
prescription drug benefits to our retirees. I will question a
little later how this is being accomplished in every instance.
So thank you. I look forward to your answers and getting a
better understanding of the issues that need to be addressed,
not only with veterans but also it may be helpful to us as we
look toward how to solve the problem of those who are uninsured
through Medicare at the present time. Thank you.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you, Senator Nelson.
Senator Wellstone. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I know we want
to get to the Secretary. Welcome, Mr. Secretary, and I will do
this in 1 minute.
I am also interested, Mr. Secretary and others, in exactly
why $2 and $7 on copay. I also want to just associate myself
with the comments of the chair to say, as we think about moving
forward with this prescription drug benefit, there are two kind
of facts that just kind of stare you in the face.
One of them is that the VA health care system is under
additional strain because there are people who are Medicare
recipients who don't get the benefit and then come to the VA
system. If we did a better job of really providing this benefit
to people, I think that would take some of the strain or stress
off of the VA health care system.
And then the other point, Mr. Chairman, which I think is,
frankly, very relevant to this discussion about how we are
going to do it is we have a working model here in the VA system
which says you can have cost containment and you can provide a
good benefit to people. I think we ought to be serious about
what kind of cost containment measures we are going to take as
we hopefully extend this on to Medicare. VA, as far as I am
concerned, presents one very compelling model about how we
might do it, and I am done.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you, Senator Wellstone.
With that, I might also recognize--actually, Mr. Secretary,
you appear to be both the IG and the Secretary at the same time
because you have both cards directly in front of you----
Chairman Rockefeller. So I want to separately introduce
Mr. Principi. We wouldn't want that.
Chairman Rockefeller [continuing]. And Michael Slachta, Tom
Garthwaite, and John Ogden. Mr. Secretary, please.
STATEMENT OF HON. ANTHONY J. PRINCIPI, SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF
VETERANS AFFAIRS, ACCOMPANIED BY THOMAS L. GARTHWAITE, M.D.,
UNDER SECRETARY FOR HEALTH, AND JOHN E. OGDEN, CHIEF
CONSULTANT, PHARMACY BENEFITS MANAGEMENT STRATEGIC HEALTH GROUP
Mr. Principi. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, members of the
committee. It is always a pleasure--most of the time--to be
Mr. Principi. This is an important hearing and I applaud
you for holding this hearing on a very, very significant issue
for VA and all of American health care. I agree with my friend
from Minnesota that the VA could be a model for the private
sector. I think we have learned a lot of important lessons.
But the challenge is significant. In 1990, the
pharmaceutical bill, just for products only, was $750 million.
That is not the cost of administration, just $750 million to
pay the tab to the companies for products that we purchased.
Today, it is $2.5 billion and growing. In 1990, it was 6
percent of our budget. Today, it is 12.5 percent of our budget,
our medical care appropriation. So it is having a very, very
significant impact on our system.
I am proud that VA has taken some very, very significant
steps over this period of time to improve our procurement, our
management, and our storage of pharmaceuticals. I think these
significant accomplishments would not have come about were it
not for the leadership of our pharmacary service, John Ogden
and his team under the leadership of Dr. Garthwaite. I think it
is the best in this Nation. I think great strides have been
made since the 1980's, through the 1990's, to control the cost
of pharmaceuticals. Were these steps not taken, I am absolutely
convinced we would have had to expend an additional half-
billion dollars or more were it not for these efforts.
In the 1980's, we witnessed a significant increase in
prescription workload and the expenditure for pharmaceuticals.
The demand for the drugs was absolutely infinite as new drugs
came online along with new treatment modalities at the time of
finite budgets. The traditional ways and culture in the
procurement and storage of VA pharmaceuticals needed to change.
1988, I think, was the first significant step, and I
remember it well. It was intravenous [IV] solutions and it was
our first national contract for IV solutions. I recall some
people saying it can't be done, it shouldn't be done, that
doctors will leave the system. However, there was buy-in by the
physicians and everyone else. As a result of that one national
contract, in the first 3 years, VA saved $100 million that went
to expand the reach of health care. Over the same period of
time, from 1991 to the present time, we have saved significant
money with that.
The second important step that took place----
Chairman Rockefeller. Mr. Secretary, what did they say to
be negative about IV's? What did they say? I am fascinated by
Mr. Principi. Well, they just said that you needed to have
four or five different manufacturers producing the IV
solutions, that people were accustomed to using a certain type
of IV solution, the way the product was packaged. Incredible
arguments were being proposed to stop this national contract.
But VA persisted and said this was the right thing to do.
It would save us money. And the result was, it saved
extraordinary amounts of money just for this one product alone.
I think that began the process of looking at standardization
and volume purchasing and committed use contracting. I think
that has resulted in the $540 million or thereabouts that has
I think the next important step that was taken back then
was linking our VHA with our acquisition service. For all too
long, there were big barriers between the people who procured
the pharmaceuticals and the people in VHA who treated the
patients. Well, those barriers came down and the treating
physicians were part of establishing the national formulary and
what kind of drugs we should be buying. I think linking the two
has been an important milestone in the model that we have
Then you may remember, in 1990--I remember it well--a
linkage was established between VA and Medicare pricing and VA
pricing went up. But what happened shortly thereafter, in 1991,
working with this committee in 1992, we delinked them in the
legislation dealing with pharmaceutical pricing. As a result,
VA pricing came down and we have been the beneficiaries of the
work of this committee.
So our business strategy, not clinical strategy but
business strategy for managing pharmaceutical benefits within
the VA is a simple one. Physician buy-in, leveraged national
contracts are used whenever clinically possible in contracting
for high-volume, high-cost pharmaceuticals.
I mentioned that our utilization and expenditures has
increased. In 1990, we were writing 56 million 30-day
equivalent prescriptions. In 2001, we are up to 160 million 30-
day equivalent prescriptions. So you can see the dramatic
increase in the number of people who have come to us seeking
the pharmaceutical benefit and also the care associated with
The reasons for the increased utilization? 700,000
additional veterans have come to us in the past 5 years. VA's
shift from inpatient care to outpatient care, along with more
aggressive therapy for common diseases among the VA population,
medical inflation, and the introduction of new, more effective
drug products, as well as brand products tending to be of
higher cost than the generic products have all led to increased
Deterrent to the question you raised, Mr. Chairman, about
the lack of a Medicare benefit on VA expenditures, the short
answer is, yes, it has had an impact. Veterans who have dual
eligibility or even triple eligibility--are Medicare eligible,
VA eligible, and DoD eligible, will seek the best pharmacy
package available, and VA clearly has the best program for
pharmaceuticals. We have a low copayment. We don't have any
enrollment fee. Therefore, I think veterans just tend to come
Now, if there was a Medicare pharmaceutical benefit, I
think we would have to see what the nature of that benefit was
as to whether it would depress demand in the VA. But again,
ours is a very generous benefit, the way it should be, and the
question of how much it will depress demand I really believe
will depend directly on the nature of the benefit that the
President and the Congress should agree to at some point.
But we clearly are the recipients, if you will, of that
workload because they have nowhere else to go. They simply have
nowhere else to go.
Let me talk about the copayments. We have proposed an
increase in the copayment from $2 to $7 as Congress gave us the
authority in the millennium health care legislation. The
copayment hasn't been raised since 1990, when it was
established at $2, and during the same period of time, as I
have indicated, our pharmaceutical bill has grown over 200
percent. Those dollars stay with VA. They don't go into the
general treasury. So the increased collections will allow us to
buy more pharmaceuticals for our Nation's veterans.
I will add, however, that I have always believed that an
increase in the copayment for pharmaceuticals should be looked
at in conjunction with other copayments that we have. The
copayment for outpatient care--I believe a $50 copayment for
basic outpatient care is too high and that should be reduced. I
am very hesitant to move forward with a copayment for
pharmaceuticals that doesn't look at the other copayments that
we charge our Nation's veterans to ensure that they are all
reasonable and consistent and that they can afford the care
that we provide.
So, yes, I do believe it is warranted. The cost alone of
administering our pharmaceutical benefit is about $7.28. Now, I
have to question why that is so high. I think we need to bring
down our administrative costs. But that doesn't take into
account the $14.50. The average cost of every prescription we
write is about $14.50, when you look at 160 million 30-day
prescriptions and a $2.5 billion budget for pharmaceuticals. So
we are paying $7.28 to administer this program, mail out the
pharmaceuticals to veterans, and then the $2.5 billion to buy
the drugs. So it is very, very costly.
But I do believe the Department needs to look carefully at
this outpatient visit, $50 to have your blood pressure checked
or whatever, a basic exam. I think it should be tiered. I think
preventive health care should be zero, a basic exam around $15
or $20, in that range, and around $50 for a more complex visit
that requires perhaps some testing. So I just wanted you to
know, I am looking at both. I am not trying to say they should
be linked, but I am very hesitant to go forward after the
comment period with one without looking at the other.
Just a quick word on DoD procurement. I think we have made
great strides between VA and DoD in joint contracting. I have
always believed that these two procurement systems should be
consolidated, but not the clinical side of the house. Each
should maintain their own formularies. But clearly, with
respect to the procurement and the distribution of
pharmaceuticals, medical/surgical equipment, and supplies, I
believe all of us--veterans, military, and taxpayers--would be
better served if we brought the sheer purchasing power of both
of those systems under one roof, working jointly, in a joint
type of command system. I think very, very significant savings
could accrue, saving dollars that are needed to expand the
reach of health care.
With that, I will close, Mr. Chairman, and I will be more
than happy to try to answer any questions you might have.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Principi follows:]
Prepared Statement of Hon. Anthony J. Principi, Secretary, Department
of Veterans Affairs
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:
I am pleased to have this opportunity to address the significant
accomplishments that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has made
since 1988 towards effective and efficient management of
In the 1980's, VA officials recognized the need to direct
significant attention to the cost and utilization of pharmaceuticals
within the system. In that decade, several forces converged on VA and
led us to build an infrastructure that allows VA to successfully manage
pharmaceutical procurement and delivery. First, the 1980's witnessed a
steadily increasing prescription workload and expenditures for
pharmaceuticals. Second, the demand for drugs was infinite in an era of
finite resources. Third, the tradition and culture in the procurement
and storage of pharmaceuticals within VA was no longer contemporary.
VA's pharmacy benefits management initiatives have resulted in
significant enhancements in the quality, consistency, and cost
effectiveness of pharmacy services provided to our patients. The
attached chronology describes significant milestones since 1988.
veterans health administration's (vha) pharmacy benefits management
The mission of VHA's PBM is to enhance the appropriate use of
pharmaceuticals in the veteran population. The five major core
functions of the PBM are (1) drug use management, (2) managing the
distribution of drugs and related services, (3) managing the costs of
pharmaceuticals, (4) outcomes research, and (5) education.
The PBM facilitates VHA's National Formulary (VANF) Process through
the use of a Medical Advisory Panel (MAP) and a committee representing
each of the 22 Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) Formulary
Committees. The MAP is composed of field-based practicing VA
physicians, one Department of Defense physician, and a senior physician
from VHA's Office of Quality and Performance. These two groups are the
primary decision-makers concerning the drugs listed on the VANF and are
also responsible for identifying and fostering the development of
pharmacologic treatment guidelines that reflect best practices
associated with treating a particular disease state and the
dissemination of that information.
The business strategy for managing pharmacy benefits within VA is a
simple one. Leveraged national contracts are used whenever clinically
possible in contracting for high-volume, high-cost pharmaceuticals. The
process is clinically driven with a goal of standardization of product.
The process is grass-roots in nature, is driven from the clinicians in
the field, employs evidenced-based drug class reviews (including data
in the VA population where it exists), and involves evaluating products
and groups of products based on efficacy, outcomes, safety, compliance,
VA patient needs, and pharmacy factors. VA has been very successful in
these types of contracts and other similar contracting strategies. From
1996 through February 2001, VA officials estimate $540 million in
accumulated cost-avoidance from such contracts. As explained elsewhere
in this statement, the average unit cost of outpatient prescriptions is
not the key driver of increased expenditures. VA drug cost and
utilization data show that the average cost per 30-day equivalent
prescription in July 1999 was $12.68, increasing to only $13.48 in
January 2001. An increased number of patients treated and the increased
utilization of pharmaceuticals are the primary drivers of increased
Utilization & Expenditures:
Outpatient prescription workload increased from 56 million
prescriptions in FY 1990 to an estimated 100 million prescriptions in
FY 2001. While the 56 million figure for FY 1990 is predominantly 30-
day quantities, the 100 million figure for FY 2001 represents multi-
month prescriptions, which actually equate to approximately 160 million
30-day prescriptions. Thus, over 11 years, the number of 30-day
equivalent prescriptions has increased by almost 200 percent.
Expenditures for pharmaceuticals for both outpatients and
inpatients have increased from $715 million in FY 1990 to an estimated
$2.5 billion in FY 2001. As a percent of VA's medical care
appropriation, pharmaceuticals expenditures averaged 6 percent from FY
1980 through FY 1995. Beginning in 1996, the percent has increased each
year and will represent approximately 12.5 percent of the medical care
appropriation in FY 2001. These percentages are less than those seen in
health care organizations in the private sector even though the
pharmacy benefit in VA is generally broader in scope than is the
pharmacy benefit in most private sector plans.
The reasons for the increased utilization of pharmaceuticals in VA
include an increased number of patients served by VA (700,000 more
patients in FY 2000 than in the four prior years); a shift from
treating patients in the acute care setting of the hospital to
ambulatory care with a focus on disease prevention and amelioration;
more aggressive therapy for common diseases among the VA population
(e.g., hyperlipidemia and diabetes); medical inflation; and the
introduction of new and more effective drug products. More patients
treated and the introduction of new drug products stand considerably
above the other drivers as reasons for increased pharmaceutical
utilization and expenditures.
One example of the impact of a new therapy on VA expenditures is
the drug imatinib (Gleevec). Imatinib is used in the
treatment of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML), which can occur at any
age, but which more commonly affects middle-aged and older individuals.
We have determined that there are currently 160 patients with this
diagnosis enrolled in the VA healthcare system who potentially could be
prescribed this medication. The estimated annual cost of treatment for
patients receiving this therapy is between $20,000 and $30,000. Due to
the high cost of the annual therapy, we plan to track the number of new
patients who are being treated with this drug. In the absence of a
Medicare drug benefit, eligible veterans over age 65 with a diagnosis
of CML who have never accessed VA for medical care could be highly
motivated to enroll in the VA health care system solely as a means to
gain affordable access to imatinib.
Lack of Medicare Benefit and Impact on VA Expenditures:
While it is difficult to quantify the impact on increased
utilization and related expenditures for pharmaceuticals due to the
lack of a Medicare drug benefit, VA staff report anecdotal cases where
dual eligible veterans have chosen to access VA for the drug benefit
that is a part of our overall health care system. A portion of these
veterans indicate a desire to have VA serve as a pharmacy only. We do
not believe that VA should only provide pharmacy services, nor do we
believe Congress, in enacting provisions of title 38, contemplated that
VA act only as a pharmacy. We believe that when such veterans become
aware of the positive patient outcomes associated with VA's continuum
of care delivery model and the safety and health risks inherent in a
fragmented pharmacy-only benefit, they will want their care coordinated
and managed by VA health providers. From a financial and clinical
perspective, the important lesson learned from VA's experiences
concerning pharmaceuticals is that effectiveness and efficiency can be
achieved when the providers who treat patients are actively involved in
formulary decisions; best clinical practices are employed; and volume-
based and committed-use contracting are used when clinically feasible.
VA/DoD Joint Pharmaceutical Activities:
As of July 2001, VA and DoD have 46 Joint National Contracts, three
Joint Blanket Purchase Agreements, 23 pending, and 29 proposed joint
contracts. Additionally, VA currently has 52 unilateral contracts and
DOD has six. Some of these contracts are for high volume/high dollar
items and will be considered for joint contracting as they expire. VA
and DOD have built the necessary clinical and logistic infrastructure
to support ongoing joint contracting activities that will benefit
taxpayers and most importantly, our nations veterans, active duty and
dependent personnel. VA is committed to the goal of leveraging VA and
DoD purchasing power whenever clinically feasible.
The proposed increase to the medication co-payment was initiated
after passage of Public Law 106-117, The Veterans Millennium Health
Care Act. This law gave the Secretary of the Department of Veterans
Affairs the authority to increase the medication co-payment amount. VA
has proposed to increase the co-payment amount from $2.00 to $7.00 per
30-day prescription supply with an annual cap of $840.00 for priority 2
through 6 veterans. The proposed regulation was published in the
Federal Register on July 16, 200, for the initial 60-day public comment
period. We believe that the proposed medication co-payment is
reasonable when compared to most medication co-payments levied in the
private health care industry.
Mr. Chairman, VA has many lessons to share in the area of drug
contracting, drug utilization management, drug distribution and
achieving positive outcomes from drug therapy. While significant
milestones have been reached in achieving cost avoidance through
contracting activities within VA and jointly with DOD, even greater
cost avoidance has been achieved by identifying and encouraging best
practices, developing and promulgating drug treatment guidelines and
through recognizing the value of pharmaceuticals in the treatment of
disease. It is gratifying to know that our cost avoidance efforts have
been accomplished while improving the consistency of drug therapy
across the VA health care system. As a result of our clinically driven,
cost avoidance efforts, VA has been able to partially offset the cost
of providing care to the large number of veterans enrolled in the VA
health care system.
In closing, one example illustrates our efforts to date.
Specifically, the use of atypical anti-psychotics in treating mental
health conditions has resulted in significant utilization and
expenditures for these products. However, a significant number of
veterans receiving treatment with these products lead productive lives,
contribute to society by holding jobs, and experience fewer visits and
hospital stays due to their underlying condition. The number of VA
patients treated with atypical anti-psychotics has doubled from 35,000
in October 1998 to approximately 70,000 in March 2001. The number of
prescriptions dispensed for atypical anti-psychotics has increased from
700,000 in FY 1999 to a level of 1.1 million annually in FY 2001.
I am also pleased to report that VA mental health professionals are
contributing to providing quality medical care at an affordable price
in those instances where no medical consensus or evidence exists that
one product has more clinical value than another. While prescribing
decisions are made by VA psychiatrists based on individual patients'
clinical needs, history of medication response and potential
vulnerability to side effects, they do so with an eye towards cost-
effective therapy. VA's psychiatrists clearly recognize not only their
commitment to patients and patient care, but also to their ethical
mandate to recommend/prescribe the most cost-effective treatments,
considering that some patients will respond to relatively less costly
drugs, while others will require more costly drugs. Reliance on less
costly drugs whenever practical frees up scarce resources, which can
then be used when more costly therapy is necessary.
I recently shared with you my concern that responsible prescribing
guidelines for atypical anti-psychotics developed by VA practitioners
were being mischaracterized as a barrier that would prevent physicians
from prescribing drugs they believe will best meet patients' clinical
needs. Opponents of VA's guidelines have unfairly portrayed them as
preventing physicians from prescribing drugs they believe will best
meet patients' clinical needs, i.e., they have referred to the
guideline as a ``fail-first policy''. VA does not have a fail-first
policy. Any inference that one exists is simply untrue. VA physicians
are free to prescribe any medication included on the VA formulary. What
is being inaccurately described as a fail-first policy is nothing more
or less than sound, cost-effective, clinical decision-making, with a
mechanism for beginning treatment with an effective, less expensive
Mr. Chairman, I believe VA is in the forefront of health care
providers in integrating the provision of pharmaceuticals in its
patient treatment programs. By placing first priority on patient needs;
by emphasizing disease prevention; by implementing best clinical
practices; by assessing validated evidence of a pharmaceutical
product's effectiveness; and by employing national procurement
strategies whenever clinically possible--VA is providing high quality
care and doing so in a cost effective manner. We are proud of our
successes and the contributions these efforts are making to the
Nation's understanding of health care delivery.
This completes my statement. I will be happy to respond to
questions from the Committee.
Attachment--Chronology of Significant Accomplishments in Pharmacy
Benefits Management 1988 to present
1988--National IV Solution Contract, VA's first large
1989--Establishment of Veterans Health Administration (VHA) liaison
with VA's National Acquisition Center.
1990--Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 (OBRA 1990) linked
VA pricing to the best prices paid in the Medicaid program.
1991--VHA established Drug and Pharmaceutical Product Management
Working Group. VA developed the concept of Federal Pharmacy as it
related to service delivery and contracting for pharmaceuticals.
1992--Passage of Public Law 102-585, sections 601, 602, and 603 of
which addressed the higher prices paid by VA and other government
buyers as a result of OBRA '90. VA began the Consolidated Mail
Outpatient Pharmacy (CMOP) pilot program.
1993--Full conversion to the Pharmaceutical Prime Vendor drug
1994--Accelerating change: commitment of the USH as described in
the Vision for Change. Full activation of VA's first automated CMOP
1995--Establishment of VHA's Pharmacy Benefits Management Strategic
1996--Commercial Practice Initiative for National Contracts. Drug
Treatment Guidelines in development.
1997--Implementation of VA's National Formulary Process. Additional
drug treatment guidelines developed.
1998--VA/DOD Joint Procurement Activities. Establishment of the
Federal Pharmacy Executive Steering Committee (FPESC). PBM database
links prescription utilization to patients and providers. Enhanced PBM
1999--PBM received an award as a Finalist in the annual Rochester
Institute of Technology/USA Today Quality Cup Competition for its
overall contribution to quality movement. GAO published study ``VA
HEALTHCARE: VA's Management of Drugs on Its National Formulary,'' GAO/
2000--Institute of Medicine Report analyzes the VA National
Formulary process (``Description and Analysis of the VA National
2001--Data mining capability of the PBM's national utilization
database made available to all VISNs. GAO reports validate the VA
National Formulary Process (``VA DRUG FORMULARY: Better Oversight Is
Required, but Veterans Are Getting Needed Drugs,'' GAO-01-183; ``DOD
and VA Pharmacy: Progress and Remaining Challenges in Jointly Buying
and Mailing Out Drugs,'' GAO-01-588).
Response to Written Questions Submitted by Hon. John D. Rockefeller IV
to Anthony J. Principi
Question 1. It's clear how VA's increase to $7 for the drug co-
payment is being justified, when compared with benefits offered by
private sector health plans. However, while $7 per prescription is less
than what most Americans pay for their medications, the increase will
certainly cause a hardship for many veterans. Were other amounts--or a
sliding scale--considered? On what basis was the determination made to
set the co-payment at $7?
Answer. A work group within the Veterans Health Administration
reviewed the co-payment structure for medication co-payments. The work
group engaged the services of a contractor to perform a literature
search on co-payments charged by the private sector. A review of the
literature from 1996 showed that 96 percent of health maintenance
organization (HMO) enrollees have a prescription co-payment ranging
from $5 to $10 per prescription. The work group requested an update of
these data, and the 2000 information showed that co-payment amounts
were now ranging from $10-$15. This was due in part to new cost-sharing
product designs and the rising cost of health care in general.
Based on a review of industry standards, VA believes that the
medication co-payment should be increased from $2 to $7. The $7
medication co-payment is lower than or equal to most medication co-
payments charged by the private health care industry. The co-payment
amount is a reasonable amount for the majority of medications
dispensed. VA does recognize that veterans in certain priority groups
may be in need of multiple medications. To try to minimize their out-
of-pocket expenses, VA is implementing an annual cap of $840 for
veterans in priority groups 2-6. When the annual cap is met, the
veteran will not be charged medication co-payments until the beginning
of the next calendar year. VA is not implementing an annual cap for
veterans enrolled in priority group 7. The final regulations for the
medication co-payment were printed in the Federal Register on December
6, 2001. The increase in the medication co-payment amount and the
annual cap will be implemented on February 4, 2002.
Question 2. The published regulation on the copayment increase
states that VA incurs an average cost of more than $7 dollars to fill a
prescription--and that's just the administrative cost of dispensing the
prescription to the veteran, not the medication itself. States'
dispensing fees under Medicaid average between $4 and $5, and they are
even lower in the private sector. Why are VA's dispensing costs so high
Answer. The State dispensing fees cited above are payments made by
State Medicaid programs to participating pharmacies and have never
covered the actual dispensing costs of a prescription. There have been
numerous lobbying efforts by State Pharmaceutical Associations to raise
these dispensing fees to cover the actual cost of dispensing a
prescription. Nationally, the American Pharmaceutical Association, the
National Association of Chain Drugstores, and other associations also
continue to lobby for changes.
The $7.28 dispensing cost reported by VA for FY 2001 represents the
personnel time to procure the drug, inventory costs, overhead such as
lighting and maintenance, management and oversight, depreciation of
equipment, and the pharmacist's time to actually dispense and consult
with the patient. The cost of the drugs purchased by VA represents the
actual purchase price and not the discounted AWP (average wholesale
price) VA would have to pay if it purchased prescriptions through an
insurance mechanism. Prescriptions provided in that manner would be
substantially higher in cost than prescriptions provided directly by VA
Question 3. Congress authorized VA to increase the drug copayment
and decrease the outpatient copayment from $50 to a more reasonable
amount. Congress was quite clear about this, even recommending that VA
not set a single copayment rate for outpatient care, but instead
consider practices within the health care industry to differentiate
between primary care and specialty clinic visits. While VA has produced
the drug copayment regulations, the regulations on the outpatient
copayment have not yet been published. Why weren't these copayment
changes made concurrently?
Answer. Interim final regulations to implement changes to the
outpatient co-payment were published in the Federal Register on
December 6, 2001, and were effective immediately. A three-tiered co-
payment structure is being implemented. The co-payment amount will be
based upon the level of service provided (i.e., primary care versus
specialty care). Even though the medication co-payment is being
increased, VA believes that the reduced outpatient co-payment will
partially offset this increased expense for our patients.
Question 4. VA's decision to enroll category 7 veterans is made at
the beginning of each fiscal year. What is your current thinking on
cutting off enrollment for new Category 7 veterans?
Answer. The Administration has determined to continue enrolling
veterans in all priority groups during FY 2002.
Question 5. Again and again, as the Committee addresses VA health
care issues, the devolution of power to the health networks becomes a
focal point. Problems with a lack of national oversight in the area of
quality management and specialized services have already been
highlighted. And the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) testimony
recommended that the formulary structure should be ``recalibrated
towards a more uniform national approach'' so as to cease further
inequities in the local formularies.
Please share your thoughts on the network structure generally and
on the IOM recommendation specifically.
Answer. The Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) structure
was created in 1995. It integrates decentralization of daily operations
with the opportunity to better align resources with local needs and
improve service delivery. Nonetheless, given this flexibility to
address local needs, other mechanisms assure that requirements of vital
national programs are addressed equitably across the system. National
Performance Measures and Monitors are developed to address such health
care issues as patient safety, clinical practice guidelines, special
emphasis programs (prosthetics, Spinal Cord Injury, etc.) and waiting
times, to name just a few. The measures and monitors have identified
goals and are clearly communicated to all networks at the beginning of
each fiscal year. Furthermore a national committee reviews the measures
and monitors on an annual basis to modify, add, or delete elements to
assure that important health care issues are addressed and current.
VA concurs with the recommendation of the IOM concerning a
recalibration towards a more uniform approach to formulary management.
With over 90 percent of all outpatient prescriptions written for items
listed on the VA National Formulary (VANF), VA has made considerable
progress since the inception of the VANF process in 1997. Prior to
1997, the rate of variation across the formularies of the local VA
medical facilities was much greater than in the current environment.
While much progress has been made, VA will continue to refine the VANF
process by directing that local formularies will no longer be
authorized under the new VAN F policy directive. In addition, the new
directive will outline specific procedures for adding new drugs to the
VANF so that the potential for inter-VISN variation is greatly reduced.
These policy changes and other changes concerning the consistent
provision of prescribed medications for patients who relocate from one
region of the country to another and new requirements for access to
non-formulary drugs will help to reduce variability and ensure
continuity of therapy for VA patients.
Chairman Rockefeller. In looking at my witness list here,
Mr. Griffin, you were going to make some comments, also, were
Mr. Griffin. Yes, that is correct.
Chairman Rockefeller. We look forward to those.
STATEMENT OF RICHARD J. GRIFFIN, INSPECTOR GENERAL, DEPARTMENT
OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, ACCOMPANIED BY MICHAEL SLACHTA, JR.,
ASSISTANT INSPECTOR GENERAL FOR AUDITING
Mr. Griffin. Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I
am here today to report on our audit of the Veterans Health
Administration restrictions on filling privately written
prescriptions. This issue was addressed in our audit report
issued on December 20 of 2000.
Full implementation of our recommended actions would
provide the Department of Veterans Affairs with cost
efficiencies by streamlining the process of providing privately
written prescriptions for pharmaceuticals. Efficiencies would
be gained by eliminating redundant medical examinations that
cost the Department over $1.3 billion annually and reducing the
overcrowding of some clinics.
The Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996
required VA to enroll veterans annually according to seven
priority groups. Once enrolled, all veterans, regardless of
their priority grouping, have access to all of the health
services in VA's basic medical benefits package, which includes
prescription drugs and supplies.
Priority group seven is comprised of veterans without
compensable service-connected disabilities and with incomes
above prescribed limits. These veterans are subject to a $2
copayment for each 30-day supply of prescribed medications
obtained from VA. Use of VA's prescription drug benefit
provides these veterans with the opportunity to obtain
prescriptions at a significantly lower cost, since their
private insurance generally excludes this benefit.
We assessed the extent that priority group seven veterans
use pharmacy services from VISN 8 medical facilities for the
sole or primary purpose of filling privately written
prescriptions. To do so, we identified veterans who had at
least one visit to a Network 8 facility during fiscal year 1999
and at least four active prescriptions during that same year.
We reviewed the records for a sample from this group and found
that almost 90 percent had access to private non-VA health care
or there was a clear statement in the medical record that their
sole or primary reason for using the VA was to have private
Based on the case review results, we estimated that in
fiscal year 1999, 46,866 of the network's 52,570 priority group
seven veterans had access to private non-VA health care and
used VA health care services to have private prescriptions
VA regulations do not allow VA pharmacies to fill
prescriptions issued by private physicians, except in limited
circumstances, such as for veterans who are house-bound or are
receiving Aid and Attendance benefits from VA. Veterans holding
privately written prescriptions are scheduled for examinations
by VHA staff physicians, who routinely duplicate tests that
were already performed by the patient's private physician.
Their prescriptions are then filled by the VHA pharmacy if the
drugs are listed on VA's drug formulary. When not listed in the
formulary, an alternative is issued in consultation with the
Indirect costs of validating prescriptions written by
private physicians include the staff and clinic time associated
with completing the exams and any clinical tests that might be
required. We estimated that VISN 8 spent almost $114 million in
fiscal year 1999 following this process.
VHA's process also adds to the already overcrowded
conditions and extended waiting times that exist in some
clinics. The managers and clinic staff we spoke with during the
audit acknowledged that a more efficient and streamlined
process was needed, but they were hampered due to the existing
VA regulations that require a veteran to be under VA care in
order to receive prescription drugs.
We recommended that VA seek the statutory and regulatory
authority to fill private prescriptions written for enrolled
veterans and that appropriate quality assurance systems be
implemented to ensure VA-filled prescriptions were appropriate
and safe. The Under Secretary for Health deferred a decision
and indicated that the issue needed to be considered by VHA's
Leadership Board. At this time, the recommendation remains
unresolved, pending the outcome of the board's deliberations
and the Under Secretary's decision.
This concludes my oral testimony. I would be pleased to
answer any questions that you and your members might have.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you, Mr. Griffin, very much.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Griffin follows:]
Prepared Statement of Richard J. Griffin, Inspector General, Department
of Veterans Affairs
Mr. Chairman and Members of the committee, I am here today to
report on our audit of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)
restrictions on filling privately written prescriptions. On December
20, 2000 we issued an audit report to the Under Secretary for Health
identifying opportunities to reduce the costs of providing
prescriptions to priority group 7 veterans and make additional
resources available for veterans healthcare.* Full implementation of
our recommended action would provide the Department of Veterans Affairs
(VA) with cost efficiencies exceeding $1.3 billion annually.
* The report, Audit of Veterans Health Administration Pharmacy Co-
Payment Levels And Restrictions On Filling Privately Written
Prescriptions For Priority Group 7 Veterans, is available on the VA
Office of Audit web site at http://www.va.gov/oig/52/reports/
maillist.htm: List of Available Reports
The streamlining of the process of re-writing privately written
prescriptions for pharmaceuticals would reduce the overcrowding of some
clinics. Further, many veterans would no longer need to experience the
frustration of going through the process of scheduling exams and tests
that frequently duplicates the examinations they received from their
private physicians. During our audit we found that as many as 90
percent of the priority group 7 veterans have access to private non-VA
healthcare and use VA for the sole or primary purpose of filling
privately written prescriptions.
priority group 7 use of vha's pharmaceutical benefit
The ``Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996''
required VA to enroll veterans annually according to seven priority
groups. Once enrolled, all veterans, regardless of their priority
grouping, have access to all of the health services described in VA's
basic Medical Benefits Package, which includes prescription drugs and
supplies. Priority group 7 is comprised of veterans without compensable
service-connected disabilities and with incomes above prescribed
limits. These veterans are subject to a $2 co-payment for each 30-day
supply of prescribed medications obtained from VA. With the low $2 co-
payment, most of the priority group 7 veterans in the Veterans
Integrated Service Network (VISN) 8 used VA for the sole or primary
purpose of filling prescriptions from their private physicians. Use of
VA's prescription drug benefit provides these veterans with the
opportunity to obtain prescriptions at a significantly lower cost since
their private insurance generally excludes this benefit.
To assess the extent that priority group 7 veterans used pharmacy
services from VISN 8 medical facilities for the sole or primary purpose
of filling privately written prescriptions, we identified veterans who
had at least (i) one visit to a network facility during FY 1999 and
(ii) four active prescriptions during that same year. We reviewed the
records for a sample from this group and found that almost 90 percent
had access to private non-VA health care and/or there was a clear
statement in the medical record that their sole or primary reason for
using VA was to have private prescriptions filled.
Based on the case review results, we estimated in Fiscal Year (FY)
1999 that 46,866 of the Network's 52,570 priority group 7 veterans had
access to private non-VA healthcare and used VA healthcare services to
have private prescriptions filled. We estimated that VHA-wide 361,698
of the 405,718 priority group 7 veterans used VA health care services
in FY 1999 to have their private prescriptions filled.
the process used for filling priority group 7 veterans prescriptions
written by private physicians is inefficient
VA regulations do not allow VA pharmacies to fill prescriptions
issued by private physicians except in limited circumstances (e.g., for
veterans who live in Alaska, are housebound or are receiving Aid and
Attendance benefits from VA). However, we found that veterans holding
privately written prescriptions are scheduled for medical examinations
by VHA staff physicians who routinely review and approve the orders of
the private physicians. These prescriptions are then filled by the VHA
pharmacy if the drugs are listed in VA's drug formulary. When not
listed in the formulary, a substitute or alternative is issued in
consultation with the private physician. We found that the VA's medical
examinations frequently duplicate tests and procedures that were
already performed by the patient's private physician and were conducted
to allow the VA physician to support a prescription that the patient
had from his or her private physician.
Indirect costs of re-writing private prescriptions include the
staff and clinic time associated with completing the medical
examinations and tests that allow VA physicians to re-issue the
prescription. We estimated that VISN 8 spent almost $114 million in FY
1999 following this process. Although some of the costs were recouped
through billing veterans insurance companies for outpatient visits, the
exact amount of the recoupment could not be determined because
inpatient and outpatient collections were not separately identified by
VHA. We estimated that VHA-wide as much as $1.33 billion would be spent
in FY 2001 completing medical examinations and tests.
In addition to the costs of performing the necessary examinations
and tests needed to validate privately written prescriptions, VHA's
process also adds to the already overcrowded conditions and extended
waiting times that exist in some clinics. The managers and clinical
staff we spoke with during the audit acknowledged that a more efficient
and streamlined process was needed, but they were hampered due to the
existing VA regulations that required the tests and examinations. We
recommended that VA seek the statutory and regulatory authority to fill
private prescriptions written for enrolled veterans and that
appropriate quality assurance systems be implemented to ensure VA-
filled prescriptions were appropriate and safe. The Under Secretary for
Health has indicated that VHA's National Leadership Board will consider
this issue and deferred agreement with the recommendation. At this time
the recommendation remains unresolved, pending the outcome of the
Board's deliberations and the Under Secretary's decision.
This concludes my testimony. I would be pleased to answer any
questions that you and the members of the committee may have.
Chairman Rockefeller. At a 1999 hearing, the then-Under
Secretary for Health was asked if there was any indication that
Medicare-eligible veterans were turning to the VA for
prescription drugs, and at that time, 2 years ago, he answered,
``I can't quantify it in precise dollars, but it is a generally
recognized phenomena that it is occurring across the country
and for very understandable reasons.'' He went on to say, ``I
would expect that it is in the hundreds of millions of dollars
in terms of range.''
Mr. Secretary and Mr. Griffin, how would you update that,
or Dr. Garthwaite, whoever.
Dr. Garthwaite. I don't think we have any disagreement with
Mr. Griffin's study, although I think VISN 8 is a tough one to
extrapolate for the rest of the United States because of the
rapidity of growth that we have seen in the number of veterans
accessing the system down there. There are, I think, 40,000 new
unique patients coming in just this year.
Our challenge has been that we believe we are not allowed
to just simply fill prescriptions and so we have tried to stay
out of the pharmacy business. We also don't want to be
competing against private pharmacies. We don't think that is
our function, either. And we also believe we need to coordinate
the care and concur with the prescriptions that these patients
get from their non-VA providers. We do, however, believe
strongly that the lack of coordination of benefits amongst the
various Federal and private systems causes patients to
experience a fair amount of confusion. The fact that they seek
care from us is, as you said, totally understandable.
Chairman Rockefeller. Which leads directly to my next
question. If the VA were authorized to provide pharmaceuticals
that had been prescribed by non-VA doctors, what do you think
would be the condition and situation of the Department of
Veterans Affairs 5 to 8 years from now?
Mr. Principi. I believe that cost would dramatically rise.
Obviously, I think a great many more veterans would come to the
VA just to have their prescriptions filled, especially with our
very efficient consolidated mail-out pharmacy program. You
don't have to drive 100 miles to a VA medical center and wait
for hours to have a prescription filled anymore. You can go
once, and hopefully now with all the outpatient clinics close
by they are very readily accessible, and get the first
prescription filled locally, and then from that point on, they
are mailed to your home. So I think it would increase it
But what concerns me more is that we have been effective in
establishing a national formulary. I don't know how you would
manage that if every provider or physician in America could
write a prescription that would be filled by the VA and how you
would manage how they would know what is on our national
formulary. I think it would be a management challenge to
control the formulary.
Chairman Rockefeller. There would be some concern whether
or not the VA would become a pharmacy?
Mr. Principi. Well, we would become a pharmacy.
Chairman Rockefeller. Yes.
Mr. Principi. I don't think there is any question about it.
I understand the sentiment from where the Inspector General is
coming from. I just think it would be very, very difficult to
manage and that we would, in fact, become a pharmacy.
Mr. Griffin. Mr. Rockefeller, if I may----
Chairman Rockefeller. Yes, sir?
Mr. Griffin. If a person goes to Johns Hopkins and gets a
prescription, they are free to take that to any pharmacy they
want to go to and that pharmacist does not have another doctor
validate that prescription. What we projected here on a
national basis is $1.3 billion worth of medical care that is
being spent, if you will, for this purpose which could be
utilized to address more serious problems of other veterans.
We are not supporting the concept of the VA as a pharmacy.
What our report addresses is priority seven veterans and
whether or not it makes sense to redo those examinations that
are done by another doctor at the expense of other things that
those health care providers could be doing.
Chairman Rockefeller. And I understand that, and I thank
Just one more question before my time expires.
Pharmaceuticals are very expensive no matter what, and getting
more so. I would suppose so. It will be very interesting to see
what we do in the non-VA prescription drug cost containment
area. It is very controversial.
But I know one of the things that you have been very good
at in the VA is contracts for generic drugs. What is important
about that is it is not just the lower cost that is important,
it is also the quality that is important and we have to keep
bearing that in mind.
Now, I understand that for some time now, the VA has been
attempting to contract for Clozapine, which is used to treat
schizophrenia. Apparently, there appear to be delays related to
protests which, understandably and predictably, come from those
who don't want to see a generic used. I am concerned, however--
and that is not the VA's fault. The VA has nothing to do with
that. But I am concerned that the VA may inadvertently be
exacerbating the delay--I am not sure of that, but I am
interested in that--even after protests are denied, by
beginning the negotiations all over again. In other words, the
VA starts the system up again. This question may be for the IG.
My question is, No. 1, what is the reason, unless it is too
specific a question, for the delay, and almost regardless of
your answer, I would like to be able to get a white paper of
some sort on that particular problem, because it foretells the
Mr. Ogden. This is a good example where protests, and I am
not a contracting officer nor am I a contracting attorney, but
this is a good example where the Federal procurement
regulations can be used against us, so to speak. Your comment,
Senator Rockefeller, about the possibility that we in VA might
be not in favor, if you will, of a generic contract in the area
of clozapine, I can tell you that, as you well know, our system
is based on the use of generic drugs, and if we could use a
generic clozapine, we would use it and we would have awarded
the contract by now.
But during the process of developing the contract
solicitation and through the last couple of years, there have
been a number of protests, but there has also been some
evidence presented that the conversion from the branded
product, a generic clozapine in some cases hasn't been
successful. So our mental health professionals who work with us
in evaluating this solicitation were a little hesitant to move
forward at a point in time, but notwithstanding that, that is
the primary reason, if you want to describe that we were not in
favor of a generic, that is the primary reason. But we will
award the generic contract if and when the General Accounting
Office denies this latest protest, and assuming we don't have
any other protests in the near future.
Chairman Rockefeller. OK. If I could get something in
writing on that, I would appreciate it very much.
Senator Specter. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Secretary, financing prescription drugs is very costly.
I need to ask you many questions but there is such a limited
period of time that it may be advisable for you to supplement
your responses. I am not going to be able to be here for the
second round. I have other commitments and I will have to
When you talk about the efficiencies of joint contracting
by DoD and VA, what would be the projection on economies if
Medicare was put into the mix? Wouldn't it be quite
Mr. Principi. I think it would probably increase our costs
somewhat. I doubt we could sustain the discount levels that we
receive if Medicare was consolidated with us.
Senator Specter. Well, why would that be? The
pharmaceutical companies are not selling to you at a loss at
the present time, are they?
Mr. Principi. No, but we get a significant discount. Let me
ask the head of Pharmacy Service perhaps if he would have any
estimates on how much we could save, or if not, I will provide
it for the record.
Mr. Ogden. If I understand your question correctly, if we
included Medicare, DoD, and VA under the same umbrella and then
subsequently went out and acquired contracts, what would be the
impact, up or down, on the system, on our system, or even the
DoD system? My sense is that we would see increased pricing for
the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of
Defense, and the reason I say that is because of past
experience with OBRA 1990, et cetera, but also the Medicare
market is huge, potentially huge out there, and a lot of those
drug dollars, those expenditures for those drugs is already in
the economy. So what you would in essence be doing would be to
affect the bottom line of the pharmaceutical industry pretty
significantly, because right now, the VA and DoD is about 3
percent of the U.S. market.
Senator Specter. That might be something that would lend
itself to a good Congressional investigation, maybe from this
committee. I know the costs are very high in the Medicare
community, but it is a matter of straightforward logic that if
there are greater quantities--the costs of pharmaceuticals are
a very flexible item. We see all sorts of surprising practices.
Pharmaceuticals are sold in Canada at a lower cost than
here, and we have a tremendous controversy about people from
the border States going into Canada to buy drugs. We have had
quite a legislative battle on that. We have had the issue of
pharmaceuticals for AIDS, where the pharmaceutical companies
have made modifications in their prices.
And the Medicare community may have, to some extent, a
differing prescription demand, but I would like you to make a
study of it, Mr. Ogden and Mr. Secretary, as to the impact,
because the logic is all in favor of joint contracting. Just as
you get a lower cost if DoD and VA get together, you ought to
get a lowest cost if you add a third agency to the mix,
Medicare. And there is enormous public concern and
Congressional concern about the cost of pharmaceuticals.
This all works into a very, very complex question about
patent rights, and about patent extensions, and about orphan
drugs--issues the pharmaceutical companies bring to the
Judiciary Committee all the time. And then there is the issue
of generic drugs, and the issue which we have talked about
considerably as to Medicare subvention We have enormous budget
battles every year about how much Medicare is going to get as
opposed to how much the veterans are going to get. While it is
true that we are taking money out of two pockets in the same
pair of pants, still, those allocations need to be made. VA
needs Medicare subvention.
So what I would like to see done is an analysis as to the
feasibility of the Veterans Administration getting a
reimbursement from Medicare, which may have a better
constituency when budget time comes around than we are able to
get for the veterans. And I would like you to then carry over
that analysis into pharmaceuticals and see what can be done--
perhaps a little jawboning, anatomically speaking--even a
little arm twisting over prices when the Federal Government
gets into prescription drug purchasing in a big way. I think we
have got to get just a little bit tough here when we are going
to be putting a lot of money into currency which will benefit
the pharmaceutical companies.
And then to throw in one more line--but just one more since
the red light is now on--I raise the issue of NIH
subsidization. NIH subsidizing drug companies--enormously, we
have increased NIH funding from $12 billion to $20.5 billion
and soon it will be $24 billion. So I think we can look to the
pharmaceutical companies to pay a little attention to veterans
and to Medicare and I would like to see us start off to get
some answers to some pretty pointed questions.
Mr. Principi. We will provide that for the record.
[The information referred to follows:]
Report to Congressional Requesters--August 2000
PRESCRIPTION DRUGS--Expanding Access to Federal Prices Could Cause
Other Price Changes (GAO/HEHS-00-118)
AMP average manufacturer price
AWP average wholesale price
CBO Congressional Budget Office
DOD Department of Defense
FCP federal ceiling price
FSS federal supply schedule
GSA General Services Administration
HCFA Health Care Financing Administration
HMO health maintenance organization
HRSA Health Resources and Services Administration
OBRA Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990
NFAMP nonfederal average manufacturer price
PHS Public Health Service
VA Department of Veterans Affairs
August 7, 2000.
The Honorable Tom Bliley,
Committee on Commerce,
House of Representatives.
The Honorable Michael Bilirakis,
Chairman, Subcommittee on Health and Environment,
Committee on Commerce,
House of Representatives.
Federal departments and agencies can purchase prescription drugs at
substantial discounts off market prices through the federal supply
schedule (FSS) for pharmaceuticals. Administered by the Department of
Veterans Affairs (VA), the FSS for pharmaceuticals is a list of
products and their prices that are available to federal entities that
purchase prescription drugs.\1\ During fiscal year 1999, federal
purchasers spent over $2.75 billion on prescription drugs,\2\ about
$1.5 billion of which was for drugs purchased from the FSS. Also,
federal law guarantees substantial drug price discounts to state
Medicaid programs and specific public health entities that receive
\1\ The FSS may list the same drug in different dosage amounts and
package sizes. Each listing is considered an individual item or
\2\ This total includes all FSS sales to federal purchasers, as
well as non-FSS sales associated with contracts VA and the Department
of Defense (DOD) have with drug manufacturers.
As the Congress considers adding a prescription drug benefit to
Medicare, there is increased interest in understanding the ways that
government purchasers have controlled their costs for prescription
drugs and whether these methods can be used to reduce prescription drug
costs for Medicare beneficiaries. One proposal before the Congress
would allow Medicare beneficiaries to purchase drugs from pharmacies at
the same prices that are available to federal purchasers or state
Medicaid programs. Because of your Interest in the issue of expanding
Medicare beneficiaries' access to prescription drugs, you asked us to
provide you with information on (1) the federal drug price discounts
available to federal and nonfederal purchasers and the size of those
discounts, and (2) the potential effects that extending such discounts
to nonfederal purchasers may have on outpatient drug prices paid by
federal and nonfederal purchasers.
To address these issues, we obtained information on the drug
purchasing methods and prices available to the federal departments and
agencies that spend the most on prescription drugs--VA, DOD, and the
Public Health Service (PHS). We also obtained information from the
Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) on the rebates state
Medicaid programs receive through the Medicaid drug rebate program. In
addition, we contacted officials of the Health Resources and Services
Administration's (HRSA) Office of Drug Pricing to determine the drug
price discounts available to public health entities that receive
federal assistance.\3\ Further, we reviewed several studies relevant to
the potential impact of expanding the availability of government drug
price discounts to nonfederal purchasers. We conducted our study
between December 1999 and June 2000 in accordance with generally
accepted government auditing standards.
\3\ The Office of Drug Pricing is now called the Office of Pharmacy
results in brief
Federal departments and agencies, state Medicaid programs, and
numerous nonfederal public health entities have access to prescription
drugs at substantially lower prices than many other purchasers. Federal
entities can purchase drugs from the FSS at prices that are the same or
lower than those drug manufacturers charge their most-favored private
purchasers. Under federal law, drug manufacturers must list their
brand-name drugs on the FSS to receive reimbursement for drugs covered
by Medicaid.\4\ Manufacturers must also sell brand-name drugs listed on
the FSS to four federal purchasers--VA, DOD, PHS, and the Coast Guard--
at a price at least 24 percent lower than the nonfederal average
manufacturer price (NFAMP), a ceiling price that is lower than the FSS
price for many drugs.\5\ In addition, VA has obtained some drug prices
that are even lower than FSS prices through national contracts based on
a competitive-bid process. On average, these contracts have resulted in
prices that are about one-third lower than corresponding FSS prices.
Federal law also specifies that state Medicaid programs and certain
nonfederal purchasers can receive substantial discounts on prescription
drug prices. Under the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990
(OBRA), drug manufacturers must provide rebates to state Medicaid
programs for their outpatient drugs in exchange for Medicaid
coverage.\6\ For brand-name drugs, the minimum rebate is 15.1 percent
of the average manufacturer price (AMP).\7\ During fiscal year 1999,
the rebates state Medicaid programs collectively received amounted to
about 19 percent of overall payments for prescription drugs. The Public
Health Service Act also provides some nonfederal purchasers, such as
community health centers and certain public hospitals, access to drug
prices based on Medicaid rebates.
\4\ See 38 U.S.C. sec. 8126, as added by the Veterans Health Care
Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-585, sec. 603).
\5\ The NFAMP is the weighted average price of each single form and
dosage unit of a drug that is paid to a manufacturer by wholesalers for
nonfederal purchasers, taking into account any cash discounts or
similar price reductions.
\6\ See P.L. 101-508, sec. 4401.
\7\ The AMP is the weighted average price of each form and dosage
unit of a drug that is paid to a manufacturer by wholesalers for drugs
distributed to the retail pharmacy class of trade, taking into account
cash discounts or similar price reductions. FSS prices and prices
associated with direct sales to HMOs and hospitals are excluded from
Mandating that federal prices for outpatient prescription drugs be
extended to a large group of purchasers, such as Medicare
beneficiaries, could lower the prices they pay but raise prices for
others. Such price changes could occur because drug manufacturers would
be required to charge beneficiaries and federal purchasers the same
prices. To protect their revenues, manufacturers could raise prices for
federal purchasers. Furthermore, because federal prices are generally
based on prices paid by nonfederal purchasers, manufacturers would have
to raise prices to these purchasers in order to raise the federal
prices. In particular, large private purchasers that tend to pay lower
prices, such as health maintenance organizations (HMO) and other
insurers, could see their prices rise. While it is not possible to
predict the extent or timing of any changes in manufacturer pricing
strategies if Medicare beneficiaries gained access to the same prices
available to federal purchasers, the experience following
implementation of a Medicaid rebate suggests that manufacturers would
adjust prices quickly. The magnitude of these potential effects would
vary by drug and would depend on a number of factors, including the
relationship between the specific federal price extended to Medicare
beneficiaries and the price paid by nonfederal purchasers, as well as
the number of Medicare beneficiaries with access to the federal price.
Prescription drug expenditures have increased substantially in
recent years.\8\ From 1993 to 1998, prescription drug spending grew at
an average rate of 12.4 percent per year, compared with a 5 percent
average annual growth rate for health care expenditures overall. As a
result, prescription drugs account for a growing share of total health
care spending, rising from 5.6 percent in 1993 to 7.9 percent in 1998.
This dramatic rise in drug outlays has occurred for a number of
reasons, including greater utilization of drugs, the substitution of
higher-priced new drugs for lower-priced existing ones, and more
direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs by manufacturers.
\8\ See Prescription Drugs: Increasing Medicare Beneficiary Access
and Related Implications (GAO/T-HEHS/AIMD-00-100, Feb. 16, 2000). From
1993 to 1998, national expenditures for prescription drugs grew from
about $50.6 billion to about $90.6 billion.
In the face of increasing drug expenditures, large purchasers
attempt to control their drug costs, in part, by negotiating lower
prices with manufacturers. Some purchasers deal directly with
manufacturers while other purchasers have representatives that act on
their behalf. For example, pharmacy benefit managers negotiate drug
prices for many HMOs and insurers, while group purchasing organizations
representing thousands of the nation's hospitals do the same. The
leverage purchasers bring to negotiations is based largely on their
ability to increase the volume used of a particular drug through
mechanisms that influence physicians' prescribing and enrollees'
purchasing practices. Using these mechanisms, they can offer
manufacturers a larger volume of sales in exchange for bigger
To control which specific drug products they will purchase and the
volume used, HMOs and other insurers frequently create a formulary. A
formulary is a list of drugs, grouped by therapeutic class, that a
purchaser prefers its physicians to prescribe because of the drugs'
medical value and price. Because there are often similar products
competing for a share of the market, the greater the purchaser's
ability to determine which products it will include on its formulary,
the more leverage the purchaser has to exact lower prices from
manufacturers.\9\ The purchaser can influence utilization by
encouraging physicians to prescribe lower-cost formulary drugs over
both higher-cost formulary and nonformulary drugs. The purchaser may
also provide financial incentives, such as reduced copayments, to
encourage its health plan members to request that physicians prescribe
lower-cost formulary drugs, including generics.\10\
\9\ Competition can exist between brand-name drugs that are
therapeutically equivalent, between brand-name drugs and generic
substitutes, and between generic versions of the same drug. Brand-name
or innovator drugs generally have a patent on their chemical
formulation or on their manufacturing process. While under patent
protection, they are called single-source drugs because only the
company that holds the patent produces them. After the patent has
expired, generic copies of the exact chemical formulation usually
become available and the drugs are then referred to as multiple-source
\10\ Because generic drugs are not patented and can be copied by
different manufacturers, they often face intense competition, which
usually results in much lower prices than brand-name drugs.
federal price discounts on prescription drugs are significant for
federal and nonfederal purchasers
Federal law enables the federal government to use its leverage as a
large purchaser of prescription drugs to secure some of the lowest
prices available for pharmaceuticals. Through the FSS and the Medicaid
rebate programs, manufacturers must provide many of their drugs at
significantly discounted prices in exchange for having their drugs
covered by Medicaid. Federal law also sets a ceiling price on FSS
brand-name drugs purchased by select federal purchasers and extends
prices based on Medicaid rebates to many public health entities that
receive federal assistance. In addition, VA has been able to obtain
some prices even lower than FSS prices through national contracts with
drug manufacturers that channel utilization to specific products.\11\
Table 1 describes various federal drug prices available to federal and
nonfederal purchasers and their relationship to benchmark prices.
\11\ VA refers to these as committed-use contracts.
Table 1: Pharmaceutical Pricing Terms
Retail price.............................. The price charged by retail
pharmacies to individuals
without insurance, known as
Average wholesale price (AWP)............. The average list price that
a manufacturer suggests
pharmacies. AWP is
typically less than the
retail price, which will
include the pharmacy's own
price markup. AWP is
referred to as a sticker
price because it is not the
actual price that large
purchasers normally pay.
For example, in a study of
prices paid by retail
pharmacies in 11 states,
the average acquisition
price was 18.3 percent
below AWP.a Discounts for
HMOs and other large
purchasers can be even
greater. AWP information is
AMP....................................... The average price paid to a
manufacturer by wholesalers
for drugs distributed to
retail pharmacies. FSS
prices and prices
associated with direct
sales to HMOs and hospitals
are excluded. AMP was a
benchmark created by OBRA
in 1990 to use in
rebates and is not publicly
Congressional Budget Office
(CBO) estimated AMP to be
about 20 percent less than
AWP for more than 200 drug
purchased by Medicaid
NFAMP..................................... The average price paid to a
manufacturer by wholesalers
for drugs distributed to
NFAMP is not publicly
FSS....................................... The price available to all
federal purchasers for
drugs listed on the FSS.
FSS prices are intended to
equal or better the prices
manufacturers charge their
customers under comparable
terms and conditions.
Because terms and
conditions can vary by
drug, the most-favored
customer price may not be
the lowest price in the
market. FSS prices are
Federal ceiling price (FCP)............... The maximum price
manufacturers can charge
for FSS-listed brand-name
drugs to VA, DOD, PHS, and
the Coast Guard, even if
the FSS price is higher.
FCP must be at least 24
percent off NFAMP. FCP is
not publicly available.
Medicaid rebate net price................. The effective outpatient
drug price after
manufacturer rebates to
state Medicaid programs.
The basic rebate on brand-
name drugs is the greater
of 15.1 percent of the AMP
or the difference between
AMP and the lowest or
``best'' price the
manufacturer charges any
purchaser other than
Medicaid. Rebates for
generic drugs are 11
percent of the AMP. Rebates
are larger for brand-name
drugs whose AMP increases
exceed inflation in the
consumer price index.
Information on rebate
amounts is publicly
available; AMP and best
price are not.
VA national contract price................ The price VA has obtained
through competitive bids
from manufacturers for
select drugs in exchange
for their inclusion on the
VA formulary. Contract
prices are publicly
a See Office of the Inspector General, Medicaid Pharmacy--Actual
Acquisition Cost of Prescription Drug Products for Brand Name Drugs
(Washington, D.C.: HHS, Apr. 1997).
b See CBO Papers: How the Medicaid Rebate on Prescription Drugs Affects
Pricing in the Pharmaceutical Industry (Washington, D.C.: CBO, Jan.
1996, p. 20).
FSS and Ceiling Prices
The FSS for pharmaceuticals contains over 17,000 products available
to federal departments, agencies, institutions, and several other
entities, such as the District of Columbia, U.S. territorial
governments, and numerous Native American tribal governments. VA is
responsible for administering the FSS and is also the schedule's
largest purchaser--about $1.2 billion in fiscal year 1999, representing
almost 83 percent of all sales at FSS prices. According to VA, during
fiscal year 1999, FSS drug sales totaled about $1.5 billion--about 1.1
percent of domestic pharmaceutical sales.\12\
\12\ According to IMS America, a private vendor of pharmaceutical
information, in 1999 the U.S. pharmaceutical market totaled about
$142.4 billion in sales, including sales to federal and nonfederal
Although manufacturers are not required to list their drug products
on the FSS, they have financial incentives to do so despite the FSSs
relatively low prices. Manufacturers are required to list their brand-
name products on the FSS if they wish to receive reimbursement for
their drugs under the Medicaid program. Because Medicaid accounts for
almost 10 percent of domestic pharmaceutical sales, a manufacturer
could lose substantial revenues if it did not have access to this
segment of the market.\13\ Also, because sales under the FSS represent
only a small segment of the domestic pharmaceutical market, overall
revenues are not greatly affected by offering these prices to federal
customers. Furthermore, being on the FSS is significant to
manufacturers because it enhances the likelihood that their products
will be used in VA hospitals, where many of the nations' physicians
receive part of their medical training.\14\
\13\ According to HCFA, Medicaid payments minus rebates for
prescription drugs for fiscal year 1999 totaled about $13.7 billion.
This figure may slightly overstate the actual market represented by
Medicaid sales because Medicaid payments to pharmacies may be greater
than the actual amounts pharmacies pay for drugs.
\14\ For further discussion of the FSS and how FSS prices are
determined, see Drug Prices: Effects of Opening Federal Supply Schedule
for Pharmaceuticals Are Uncertain (GAO/HEHS-97-60, June 11, 1997).
FSS prices are based on the prices that drug manufacturers charge
their ``most-favored'' private customers. Specifically, under General
Services Administration (GSA) procurement regulations, the FSS price is
intended to equal or better the price that the manufacturer offers its
most-favored nonfederal customer under comparable terms and
conditions.\15\ To help VA determine the most-favored customer price,
manufacturers are required to provide VA information on price discounts
and rebates offered to domestic customers and the terms and conditions
involved, such as length of contract periods and ordering and delivery
practices. GSA regulations recognize that because the terms and
conditions of commercial sales vary, there may be legitimate reasons
why the government does not always obtain the most-favored customer
price. Hence, under the regulations, VA may accept a higher price if it
determines that (1) the price offered to the government is fair and
reasonable, and (2) awarding the contract is otherwise in the best
interest of the government.
\15\ See 48 C.F.R. sec. 538.270.
VA and several other purchasers may actually pay a lower price than
the listed FSS price for many drugs, under a provision of the Veterans
Health Care Act of 1992.\16\ Specifically, in exchange for having their
drugs covered by Medicaid, manufacturers must sell their brand-name
drugs on the FSS to four federal purchasers--VA, DOD, PHS, and the
Coast Guard--at a price that is no higher than 76 percent of the
nonfederal average manufacturer price, known as the ``federal ceiling
price'' or FCP. The FSS price for these drugs for other federal
purchasers may be higher than this ceiling.
\16\ See P.L. 102-585, sec. 603, codified at 38 U.S.C., sec. 8126.
The provision covers innovator multiple-source drugs, insulin, and
biological products such as vaccines and antitoxins. The provision does
not cover noninnovator multiple-source or generic drugs.
Most drug products covered under the Veterans Health Care Act have
FSS prices that are slightly above their FCP. As of February 2000, the
FSS prices for products covered under the act were, on average, almost
8 percent above the FCR About 63 percent of the almost 6,300 products
covered under the act \17\ had FSS prices that were above the FCP.\18\
For these products, the four purchasers protected under the act would
pay only the FCP. About 14 percent of the products covered under the
act had FSS prices equal to the FCP, and 23 percent had FSS prices that
were below the FCP. When the FSS price was lower than the ceiling, it
averaged almost 6 percent below the FCP.
\17\ As of February 14, 2000, the FSS included 17,464 drug
products; 6,274 were covered under the Veterans Health Care Act and
11,190 were not covered. Noncovered products are generally generic
drugs. VA estimates that about 70 percent of its drug expenditures for
fiscal year 1999 were for drugs covered under the Act.
\18\ About 69 percent of the covered drugs with FSS prices above
the FCP had FSS prices that were only 1 percent or less above the
FSS prices can also be well below the average wholesale prices that
manufacturers suggest wholesalers charge retail pharmacies.\19\ Recent
FSS prices for 10 drugs commonly prescribed for the elderly were
considerably lower than AWP (see table 2).
\19\ Because AWP reflects prices charged the retail level of trade,
it is typically higher than average manufacturer prices--AMP and
NFAMP--which are charged at the wholesale level.
Table 2: Prices for Select Prescription Drugs Commonly Used by the Elderly, February 2000
Brand-name drug Therapeutic category AWP a FSS b and FSS
(dollars) (dollars) prices
Lanoxin................................... Cardiac glycoside........... $20.51 $10.05 51
Norvasc................................... Calcium channel blocker 122.86 61.27 50
(high blood pressure).
K-Dur 20.................................. Potassium replacement....... 49.98 23.73 53
Lipitor................................... Cholesterol-lowering........ 169.08 102.28 40
Lanoxin (different strength).............. Cardiac glycoside........... 20.51 10.20 50
Prilosec.................................. Gastrointestinal............ 119.57 58.73 51
Pepcid.................................... Gastrointestinal............ 53.13 18.39 65
Glucophage................................ Oral antidiabetic........... 64.62 30.60 53
Fosamax................................... Osteoporosis................ 60.89 33.74 45
Synthrold................................. Thyroid..................... 30.84 20.91 32
Note: These are the 10 most frequently prescribed drugs in the Pennsylvania Pharmaceutical Assistance Contract
for the Elderly in 1999. Several of these drugs have generic versions.
a Medical Economics Company, Red Book February 2000 Update, vol. 19, no. 2 (Feb. 2000).
b Department of Veterans Affairs, Pharmacy Benefits Management Strategic Healthcare Group, http://www.vapbm.org
(cited Feb. 14, 2000).
Prices Related to Medicaid Rebates
Many entities that receive federal assistance also obtain
significant drug discounts through federal laws. The most notable are
state Medicaid programs, which receive discounts in the form of
rebates. Under OBRA, as amended, drug manufacturers must provide all
state Medicaid programs a rebate on outpatient prescription drugs in
order to have them covered by Medicaid.\20\ For all brand-name
products, the rebate is the greater of either 15.1 percent of AMP, or
100 percent of the difference between the AMP and the manufacturer's
best price. The best price is essentially the lowest price offered any
domestic purchaser other than state Medicaid programs.\21\ Rebates for
generic and over-the-counter drugs must be at least 11 percent of AMP.
To protect against substantial price increases, an additional rebate is
required for a brand-name product if its AMP increases more than the
consumer price index, a measure of overall inflation. During fiscal
year 1991, state Medicaid programs paid about $ 5.4 billion to
pharmacies for prescription drugs and received about $553 million in
rebates from manufacturers. By fiscal year 1999, drug payments had
reached about $17 billion, with rebates in excess of $3.3 billion.\22\
\20\ Rather than directly purchasing drugs, Medicaid reimburses
pharmacies for drugs purchased by Medicaid beneficiaries. Based on a
formula set by the state, pharmacies are reimbursed an amount to cover
a drug product's ingredient cost, subject to HCFA upper limits, plus a
\21\ Some prices are excluded in the determination of best price,
such as FSS prices, prices charged entities covered under the Veterans
Health Care Act, prices to state pharmaceutical assistance programs,
prices that are nominal in amount, and single-award contract prices
charged any federal agency.
\22\ Rebates in the earlier years of the rebate program were based
on a different percentage of AMP. Also, according to HCFA officials,
payments for fiscal year 1999 may be understated because states do not
typically submit all payment data to HCFA by the end of the fiscal
Since 1992, federal law has also required drug manufacturers to
offer certain nonfederal entities access to outpatient drugs at
discounted prices as a condition for Medicaid coverage of their
outpatient drugs.\23\ Specifically, under Section 340B of the Public
Health Service Act,\24\ manufacturers must provide covered entities
such drugs at or below a price equal to AMP reduced by the applicable
Medicaid rebate percentage.\25\ Entities eligible for the price
discount include hospitals that serve a disproportionate share of
Medicaid recipients; community health centers; and health centers that
serve migrant, homeless, public housing, and Native American
populations.\26\ A recent study estimates that, during fiscal year
1997, 1,075 entities purchased outpatient drugs at these discounts with
a total net purchase amount between $893 million and $1.2 billion.\27\
\23\ See Office of Drug Pricing, The Drug Pricing Program
Established by Section 340B of the Public Health Service Act:
Information Document (Washington, D.C., Feb. 1999). The Office of Drug
Pricing (now called the Office of Pharmacy Affairs), which is within
HRSAs Bureau of Primary Health Care, is responsible for administering
the Section 340B program.
\24\ As added by sec. 602 of the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992.
\25\ The rebate percentage is the total per-unit Medicaid rebate
during a calendar quarter divided by the AMP for the quarter. HRSXs
Office of Drug Pricing indicates that the ceiling price does not exceed
AMP minus 15.1 percent for brand-name drugs and 11 percent for generic
and over-the-counter drugs. An additional rebate is required if any
brand-name product's price exceeds the increase in the consumer price
index for all items. In addition, covered entities must ensure that
drugs are not double discounted--that is, that manufacturers do not pay
a Medicaid rebate on drugs already sold to the entities at a discounted
price under Section 340B.
\26\ See P.L. 102-585, sec. 602.
\27\ See An Analysis of Purchases, Savings and Participation in the
PHS Drug Pricing Program (Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.,
Washington, D.C., Sep. 30, 1999).
VA Contract Prices
VA has been able to obtain prices even lower than FSS prices
through national contracts with manufacturers for select drugs. VA has
obtained such prices because it seeks competitive bids from
manufacturers for products that are therapeutically equivalent within
specific drug classes.\28\ VA then contracts with those manufacturers
whose products it believes provide the best value, based on both
medical effectiveness and price, in exchange for including their
products on VAs national formulary and committing to use the products
throughout VAs health care system.\29\ According to VA officials, the
winning bids in most cases are the lowest prices offered. During fiscal
year 1999, VA purchases under national contracts totaled about $361.3
million, or about 23 percent of its drug expenditures. By February
2000, VA had 60 national contracts covering about 500 products.\30\ For
the 308 products that had both a national contract price and an FSS
price as of February 14, 2000, the national contract price was, on
average, about 33 percent lower than the FSS price. Because national
contract prices are lower than FSS prices, the price differences
between national contract prices and AWP, in turn, can be quite large.
For example, the national contract prices for three cholesterol-
lowering drugs that are among the top 50 drug products most commonly
used by the elderly were, respectively, 70, 72, and 88 percent lower
\28\ VA also negotiates what is known as ``blanket purchase
agreements'' with many manufacturers to obtain prices that are lower
than listed FSS prices if VA uses specific product amounts. These
agreements differ from national committed-use contracts in that they
are not competitively bid and most apply to specific VA purchasers,
such as one or more VA hospitals. As of February 14, 2000, there were
52 blanket purchase agreements in effect.
\29\ See VA Health Care: VA? Management of Drugs on Its National
Formulary (GAO/HEHS-00-34, Dec. 14, 1999).
\30\ The contracts cover both brand-name and generic products and
include some joint contracts with DOD.
\31\ For additional information on VA national contracting
practices and prices, see DOD and VA Health Care: Jointly Buying and
Mailing Out Pharmaceuticals Could Save Millions of Dollars (GAO/T-HEHS-
00-121, May 25, 2000).
federal mandates could raise drug prices for various purchasers
Extending federal prices for outpatient prescription drugs to a
large group of purchasers, such as Medicare beneficiaries, could lower
the prices these purchasers pay, but could raise prices to federal and
other purchasers. Drug manufacturers could respond to a mandate that
they extend federal prices to a larger share of purchasers by adjusting
their prices to others. The larger the group that would be newly
entitled to receive a federal price, the greater the incentive for drug
manufacturers to raise that price. The Medicaid rebate experience
suggests how federal and nonfederal drug price discounts could change
if Medicare beneficiaries had access to the same price discounts
available to federal purchasers. Following enactment of the rebate
program, discounts for outpatient drugs decreased significantly because
manufacturers raised the prices they charged large private purchasers.
Potential Price Effects of Combining Market Segments
Drug manufacturers have traditionally sold the same product at
different prices to distinct groups or segments of purchasers, such as
HMOs, private insurers, hospitals, and retail pharmacies. Manufacturers
can segment the market In this manner because the purchasers who
receive the lower prices do not, in turn, resell these products to
other purchasers. As long as the groups remain independent in this way,
manufacturers can tailor the price charged each group. This helps to
explain why customers without drug coverage, or cash-paying customers,
typically face higher prices at a retail pharmacy than HMOs or other
large private purchasers pay.
The prices that manufacturers establish for different groups depend
on how price sensitive each group is-that is, the extent to which the
group would change the amount of a product it buys if the price rises
or falls. For example, HMOs are more price sensitive than retail
pharmacies because HMOs exercise control over the particular products
they purchase through the use of formularies and other mechanisms that
influence physicians' prescribing practices. Conversely, retail
pharmacies have limited ability to determine which drugs they must have
available because physicians' prescribing practices are largely outside
their influence. Retail pharmacies must, therefore, stock a wide range
of drug products that meet the needs of all of their customers,
regardless of changes in price for those products.
If manufacturers were required to provide their drug products to
both retail pharmacies and HMOs at the same prices, these two market
segments would no longer be independent. Manufacturers would have to
decide whether to provide retail pharmacies the same prices they have
typically provided HMOs, or raise their prices to HMOs to minimize the
negative impact on their profits. To assess the potential impact on
profits, manufacturers would need to assess how much of their revenue
they would lose by charging retail pharmacies the lower HMO prices,
versus any losses in sales due to raising the prices to HMOs and other
large private purchasers. Manufacturers would recognize that raising
prices to these large purchasers could result in decreased sales.
Manufacturers would likely temper their price changes depending on how
price sensitive large purchasers were. If large purchasers were very
price sensitive, sharply restricting their purchases as prices rose,
manufacturers might restrain their price increases. If large purchasers
were less price sensitive, manufacturers could raise prices more while
experiencing the loss of fewer sales. The net result of requiring that
retail pharmacies and large purchasers pay the same prices would likely
be higher prices for those who had previously benefited from lower
prices and lower prices for those who had not.
Extending federal prices to a large group of purchasers, such as
Medicare beneficiaries, could have similar pricing implications. Large
groups of purchasers that pay very different prices based on their
price sensitivity would be combined and manufacturers would be required
to charge everyone in the enlarged combined group the same price. The
magnitude of the price effects would depend considerably on which
federal price was provided and the number of beneficiaries that would
now purchase drugs at that federal price.\32\ For example, if the FSS
price were extended to Medicare beneficiaries, the market segments that
included FSS purchasers and cash-paying retail Medicare customers would
be combined. In this case, the federal price would be based on prices
paid by manufacturers' most-favored customers, and the volume of sales
at the FSS price would be significantly larger than at present.
Depending on the number of Medicare beneficiaries that would purchase
their drugs at FSS prices, sales at FSS prices could be between 6 and
20 times larger than the current level.\33\ How much manufacturers
might charge would vary by product, depending considerably on whether
there were competing products, as well as the price sensitivity of the
manufacturers' other customers. However, for those products whose
retail and most-favored customer prices were considerably different,
manufacturers would have the incentive to charge a new price that would
likely fall somewhere between the two to offset any reduction in
revenues. In these cases, extending the FSS price to Medicare
beneficiaries could result in important out-of-pocket savings,
particularly for cash-paying beneficiaries.\34\ However, it could also
raise the prices paid by private and federal purchasers, as increases
in the prices manufacturers charged their best customers would, in
turn, increase FSS prices.
\32\ For further discussion of the potential effects of extending
FSS prices to nonfederal purchasers, see GAO/HEHS-97-60 June 11, 1997).
\33\ In 1996, Medicare beneficiaries with drug coverage spent an
average of $769 on prescription drugs; beneficiaries without coverage
spent an average of $463. If the approximate 12 million beneficiaries
that lacked drug coverage had access to FSS prices and those prices
were lower than the prices they would pay otherwise, it could increase
the volume of drugs they would purchase. Therefore, if their drug
spending at FSS prices increased to about the same amount as those with
coverage, sales at FSS prices would be about $9.2 billion, or over six
times greater than total FSS sales in fiscal year 1999. If all 39
million beneficiaries had access to FSS prices and spent an annual
average of $769 on drugs, FSS sales would be about $30 billion or about
20 times greater than total FSS sales in fiscal year 1999. Based on
data from the 1996 Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey. See J.A. Poisal
and G.S. Chulis, ``Medicare Beneficiaries And Drug Coverage,'' Health
Affairs (Mar./Apr. 2000), p. 252.
\34\ Other beneficiaries with drug coverage, such as those enrolled
in Medicare HMOs, may already receive drugs at discounted prices.
Medicaid Rebate Experience
Federal efforts to provide state Medicaid programs discounts on
prescription drugs demonstrate the potential price effects of mandating
a federal price or discount that, in effect, combines purchasers from
different market segments. Before the Medicaid rebate program was
enacted, state Medicaid programs were paying near-retail prices for
outpatient drugs, although collectively they were the largest single
purchaser of prescription drugs. OBRA required that manufacturers
provide rebates to state Medicaid programs on outpatient drugs based on
the lowest prices they charged other purchasers. After the rebate
program's enactment, the discounts that large private purchasers, such
as HMOs and hospitals, received for many outpatient drugs dropped
substantially.\35\ Within 2 years, we found that the average best-price
discount for the drugs they purchased was no greater than 15.3 percent
of AMP--about the mandated minimum rebate for Medicaid programs.\36\
This was confirmed by a CBO analysis that concluded that manufacturers
were much less willing to give steep discounts to large purchasers when
they had to give the same discounts to Medicaid.\37\
\35\ See Medicaid: Changes in Best Price for Outpatient Drugs
Purchased by HMOs and Hospitals (GAO/HEHS-94-194FS, Aug. 5, 1994).
Also, see Medicaid: Changes in Drug Prices Paid by HMOs and Hospitals
Since Enactment of Rebate Provisions (GAO/HRD-93-43, Jan. 15, 1993).
\36\ This is average percentage that the best price was below the
AMP The average best price discount decreased because the average best
price increased faster than the AMP during the 2-year period.
\37\ See CBO Papers: How the Medicaid Rebate on Prescription Drugs
Affects Pricing in the Pharmaceutical Industry (Washington, D.C., Jan.
1996). CBO also noted that many FSS prices increased significantly,
perhaps because FSS prices were initially considered with private-
sector prices in calculating rebates. In 1992, in the Veterans Health
Care Act, the Congress exempted all drug prices paid by federal
entities from rebate calculations.
By using its purchasing power, principally derived from the large
purchases covered by the Medicaid program, the federal government
obtains significantly discounted prices for prescription drugs from
drug manufacturers for both federal and select nonfederal entities.
Extending federal prices to Medicare beneficiaries could result in
their paying less for drugs. However, these lower prices could come
with a trade-off-federal and nonfederal purchasers might pay more if
drug manufacturers raise prices to them to offset revenue losses
resulting from extending federal prices to Medicare beneficiaries. The
extent to which prices would change would vary by drug and would depend
on many factors, including the number of Medicare beneficiaries
affected, whether a drug had competition, and the price sensitivity of
private purchasers. The decrease in price discounts following enactment
of the Medicaid rebate program demonstrated the potential effects of
reducing manufacturers' ability to differentiate among purchasers and
charge some purchasers higher prices than others.
agency and other comments
We obtained comments on the draft report from VA officials
associated with pharmaceutical purchasing and pharmacy benefit
management, including the Executive Director and Chief Operating
Officer of the National Acquisition Center and the Chief Consultant for
the Pharmacy Benefits Management Strategic Healthcare Group. We also
obtained comments from two nationally known researchers on
pharmaceutical pricing issues. The reviewers agreed with our findings
and provided technical comments, which we have incorporated where
As agreed with your office, unless you publicly announce its
contents earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until
30 days from the date of this letter. At that point, we will send
copies to interested congressional committees and Members and agency
officials, and will make copies available to others on request. If you
or your staffs have any questions about this report, please call me, or
John Hansen. Others who made major contributions to this report include
Joel Hamilton, Elsie Picyk, and George Bogart.
Laura A. Dummit,
Associate Director, Health Financing and Public Health Issues.
Senator Specter. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thank you, Mr.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you, Senator Specter.
Senator Wellstone, in order of original appearance.
Senator Wellstone. Thank you. Senator Specter, before you
leave, I must say, that was a powerful line of questioning. I
Senator Specter. Thank you. I am general counsel on the
other side, Senator Wellstone. [Laughter.]
Senator Wellstone. Just a couple of figures here to give
this some context. The average Fortune 500 industry in the
United States returned 4.5 percent profits as a percentage of
revenue. The pharmaceutical industry returned this past year
18.6 percent. The average Fortune 500 industry returned 3.3
percent profits as a percentage of their assets. The
pharmaceutical industry returned 17 percent. The average
Fortune 500 industry returned 14.6 percent profits as a
percentage of shareholders' equity. The pharmaceutical industry
returned 29.4 percent. That is why this last year Forbes
magazine, I think, said that the pharmaceutical industry had a,
quote, ``Viagra'' kind of year when it came to profits.
The reason I mention that is I do think that both sets of
questions are very relevant. Let me ask you, Mr. Secretary,
because Mr. Chairman, I almost think that part of the
Secretary's testimony would be good for the Finance Committee.
I really do.
Chairman Rockefeller. Almost anything would help.
Senator Wellstone. Almost anything would help. [Laughter.]
You are on the committee. You said it, I didn't.
This whole Federal Supply Schedule, the global budget that
you have got, how key is it in keeping the costs down?
Mr. Principi. I am sorry, sir?
Senator Wellstone. The VA participates in this Federal
Supply Schedule for pharmaceuticals, which is the global budget
you set up. I just want to ask you, how important do you view
this as in keeping VA's costs down for the prescription drug
benefits that you are able to provide for the veterans?
Mr. Principi. Oh, I think it is terribly important to keep
the price down to negotiate these large-volume purchases and
get them on the Federal Supply Schedule. Everyone benefits, not
only VA, but I believe we do it for DoD, Indian Health Service,
Public Health Service. So we are basically the authority, the
agency that is the procurement agent for many, if not all, of
the managed health care systems in the United States, including
the Bureau of Prisons. So I think--and that has resulted in
lower prices to our systems.
Senator Wellstone. Yes. Well, I am not trying to be clever
and I am not trying to get you into sort of the thick of all
the fights, but the chairman has said, look, we are doing this
hearing and part of it is because there is this relationship
right now, which is you have got more people coming on from
Medicare that are veterans that put a strain on this system
because we don't have it as a part of Medicare, right?
But the other connection, I think, is the way you do this,
and what Senator Specter was saying is, gee, if we just give
this industry a blank check, they will fill in the amount. If
there is no cost containment, it will never be, Mr. Chairman,
probably economically sustainable or politically sustainable.
There is going to have to be some cost containment. And I am
not making you take that position, but I am saying that I
frankly think you have a model here that works and I think that
there is no reason why it wouldn't be good for Medicare. There
is no reason why for 40 million people who represent a pretty
significant bargaining unit there shouldn't be some agreement.
Just as Senator Specter said, or maybe Senator Rockefeller
said this, the NIH, my gosh, the NIH does a ton of this
research that helps these companies, and then they get the
patents. Well, if these pharmaceutical companies, if they are
going to get the patent, they ought to agree to charge the
people in this country a reasonable price. The government is
the one that did the research.
So I think that we are just talking about, in a way,
something that is fiscally responsible, and I, for one, would
like to make the argument that you provide a model for where we
should be heading with Medicare. I really believe that.
One more thing--the light is yellow--the $2 to $7. I think
what I heard you say in your testimony--I mean, obviously, it
is not fun for you to make this recommendation. I mean, it is
clear by facial expressions it is not what you want to do. In
your testimony, and tell me if I am wrong, I thought you said
you weren't sure how it would affect demand. Is that what you
said? Or do you know, in terms of, especially as Senator
Rockefeller was saying, on the low-income end. Do you have any
sense as to what would happen here?
Mr. Principi. I think we will depress demand somewhat. I
still believe that at a $7 copayment for a 30-day prescription,
we are still the most generous plan anywhere.
Senator Wellstone. Absolutely.
Mr. Principi. Again, with some plans, of course, you have
an enrollment fee and you have deductibles and you might have a
$5 copayment. But with ours, you don't pay any of the others
and it is just a straight $7 copayment.
We are always concerned about copayments. We want to make
sure that veterans who need the drugs can get them, but we feel
confident, very confident that with a $7 copayment--veterans
will be able to obtain the drugs they need. Of course, service-
connected veterans are not included.
Senator Wellstone. Right, and this is another reason why I
would love to have you before the Finance Committee. You are
struggling with this. Senator Rockefeller has been the one that
is the leader. I have seen some of his quotes in the papers. We
are talking about still a pretty significantly high premium, a
50-percent copay, and yet not even doing that well on the
catastrophic expenses, and there are a lot of people who aren't
going to participate. Here, the Secretary is in anguish over $2
to $7, and the Finance Committee might want to express a little
bit more anguish over where they are heading.
Chairman Rockefeller. No, we are anguishing, Senator
Senator Wellstone. You are.
Chairman Rockefeller. We are just not progressing.
Senator Wellstone. You might want to anguish and then
Chairman Rockefeller. That is a logical followup statement.
And it is interesting, because you indicate the $2 to $7. We
are working off the Breaux-Frist bill on one hand and the
Gramm, what I call the Gramm-Rockefeller bill on the other
hand, and if you take $318 billion under the Gramm bill, which
we can't afford, the budget resolution doesn't allow for it, we
have to go with a $52 premium, and obviously that won't stand.
That is sticker shock and will never happen in this country. So
you then have to pay down that money in order to lower the
amount of the premium. As you do that, you are already taking a
slim amount of drug benefit money and having to push that down
So the point that Senator Wellstone makes, that the $7
compared to the----
Mr. Principi. And if I could just add, before the Senator
Senator Wellstone. Yes, and I apologize.
Mr. Principi [continuing]. Is the fact that we have put a
cap on of $840.
Chairman Rockefeller. Right.
Mr. Principi. So if you are category two through six, $840
is the most you will ever have to pay in a year. The category
sevens, we did not put a cap on. So category one is no copay at
all. Two through six, only up to $840 a year.
Senator Wellstone. You are so far ahead of where most are.
Chairman Rockefeller. Senator Nelson, and I want to say to
Senator Craig, I well understand that you are here, thank you
for coming, sir.
Senator Craig. No, go right ahead. I just came to listen
for a while.
Chairman Rockefeller. Do you want to say a word?
Senator Craig. No.
Chairman Rockefeller. OK. Senator Nelson, I apologize to
Senator Nelson. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
As you are looking at your pharmaceutical program and
providing the prescription drug benefits for the retirees,
military retirees, as you look at that and you say that you are
3 percent of the pharmaceutical market, is that what I think I
heard you say?
Mr. Ogden. Approximately.
Senator Nelson. And you don't believe that the cost
containment that you have been able to achieve to date could be
extended mathematically or pro rata wise across as you try to
effect some of the other 97 percent that wouldn't be included
if we were trying to put together a purchasing group, if you
will, or a contracting group to get a better price, is that
because the cost containment you have achieved is probably a
cost shift to the other 97 percent?
Mr. Ogden. No----
Senator Nelson. Not that I am being critical of that. I
don't mean to be critical.
Mr. Ogden. No. In fact, my comment to that is, we represent
3 percent of the U.S. market and the efforts that we have
effected and the pricing that we have received reflects that 3
percent of the U.S. market. If Medicare, for example, is 40
percent, just hypothetically, and you had States form
consortiums and negotiate with the industry just like we
negotiate with the industry, one would expect that you would
see lower prices than we receive because the market share that
would be in Medicare is much, much larger than what is in VA
So my comment was, my personal opinion is, I don't favor
linking Medicare to VA and the rest of the DoD and Coast Guard,
et cetera. I believe that in the Medicare program, through the
use of consortiums and through the use of strategies such as we
have employed in the context of managing drug utilization, that
Medicare could, in fact, drive market share and receive
excellent pricing, but it would require the kinds of actions
that we have taken as opposed to just linking Medicare to
current VA pricing. That was my comment.
Senator Nelson. I think I now understand the distinction
you were making. But wouldn't you be fearful if the 40-pound
player versus a 3-pound player is now negotiating, that you
wouldn't see a cost shift back to the VA and DoD?
Mr. Ogden. It is possible.
Senator Nelson. Because every time you press it down here,
it comes up over here----
Mr. Ogden. That is a very real possibility.
Senator Nelson [continuing]. As long as the profits are
going to continue to be at the level that they are right now,
assuming that those would continue in the future. So it isn't
as simple as we all would like to make it necessarily, but your
experience, and you are to be congratulated, in my opinion, for
what you have done for cost containment to try to bring down
the costs to a rational level.
You are in an insurance business and you have figured out a
way to make it work by controlling the costs, because otherwise
you are chasing rising costs and you will never get there. You
will never catch up. Your expenses will either be driven up, or
if you are in the business of charging a premium, as I think we
will be with respect to Medicare, the premium will just
continue to rise as you chase those rising prices.
Mr. Principi. I think the fact is, we have a national
problem in pharmaceutical costs. We have been talking today
about Medicare, VA, DoD, and that we need to simply work
together. The VA can't work in isolation. We need to work
collaboratively with HHS and with DoD and the other health care
providers. To the degree that we have learned some tough
lessons and have applied them well and those lessons can be
exported to other health care systems like HHS, then so be it.
To the degree we can cooperate, we need to explore that.
I don't want to see our costs go up, but I think we have a
responsibility to address the national issues and the VA should
be a player there.
Senator Nelson. Indeed, Mr. Secretary, I think you need to
be a player there, because as the other players play, you want
to be a participant so that it doesn't shift your direction. In
other words, it is going to be important that all the players
be in the room to avoid having what could otherwise happen. The
smaller percentage could end up carrying a larger share of the
load as a shift.
What we need to do is to find a way to achieve this without
any significant cost shift to the American market. Now, maybe
it will do something to the international market, but not to
the U.S. market.
I appreciate it very much, and you are to be, once again,
congratulated. Perhaps the 3-percent will show the 40 percent
the way, and I thank you very much.
Mr. Principi. Thank you, sir.
Senator Nelson. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you, Senator Nelson.
Let me just conclude this panel with my thanks to each and
every one of you. It is, as you say, an overwhelming problem
and an overwhelmingly complex one. It is stunning in the three
or four or five times a week meetings that we have, and the
meetings are just among Senate Republicans and Democrats on the
Finance Committee, just getting into formularies and PBM's and
private options and all the rest of it, it is mind-bogglingly
But what comes up at the end of the day is the fact that
the total amount of money that we have to spend on all of this,
which includes, incidentally, Medicare reform, is $300 billion.
That is what is in the budget resolution. There arises the very
real question, which, in fact, reflects on the future of the VA
and how we are going to be burdened, so to speak, by those
flocking to us. There is potentially an argument to be made
that if you take, let us say, according to the current
thinking, about $10 billion over 10 years for Medicare reform
out of the $300 billion, then you have $290 billion left over
10 years for prescription drugs.
Granted, nobody in the non-VA world has prescription drugs
at this point, that is, unless they are getting it under an
employer's plan, but there is a real case to made that $290
billion isn't going to do it. It is not going to be enough. So
you have to either put on a premium, which is absolutely
unsustainable politically and could never move in this place
politically, or you have to cut it to the point where the drug
money is insufficient. Drugs are going up, as has been pointed
I don't think you can do that to the American people. I
don't think you can give them about a two-thirds drug benefit
when their expectations are we are going to do it--and
everybody ran on the idea we are going to do a prescription
drug benefit. And if we don't, and there is that chance because
agreement is so hard to reach, that is just going to increase
the pressure on the VA, which I don't want to see, and neither
So we thank all of you gentlemen very, very much and
appreciate your courtesy in being here. Thank you, Mr.
The second panel consists of Cynthia Bascetta, who is
Director of Health Care for the Veterans' Health and Benefits
Issues, U.S. General Accounting Office. If we could have some
order in the room, I would appreciate it very much. She is
accompanied by Walter Gembacz, who is the Assistant Director,
Veterans' Health Care Issues. Also testifying will be Dr. Roger
Herdman, who is Director of the National Cancer Policy Board,
Institute of Medicine, and Dr. Michael Miller, who is a
consultant to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers
We welcome all of you. I am going to ask Cynthia Bascetta
to begin, but I am going to interrupt you in about 2\1/2\
minutes for a special purpose, but you go ahead.
STATEMENT OF CYNTHIA A. BASCETTA, DIRECTOR, HEALTH CARE,
VETERANS' HEALTH CARE AND BENEFITS ISSUES, U.S. GENERAL
ACCOUNTING OFFICE, ACCOMPANIED BY WALTER GEMBACZ, ASSISTANT
DIRECTOR, VETERANS' HEALTH CARE ISSUES
Ms. Bascetta. Mr. Chairman and members, thank you for
asking us to discuss our work conducted at your request on VA's
management and oversight of its national formulary. VA's
national formulary is designed to improve the quality of care
for veterans as well as better manage its rapidly escalating
costs for pharmaceuticals, which as we all know is typical of
the entire health care industry.
My testimony is based on our review of formulary policies
and practices in headquarters and VA's 22 networks, analysis of
nationwide prescription data, three site visits, and our survey
of 2,000 prescribers. In addition, we have included current
information on the status of VA's actions to implement the
recommendations we made this January.
As we reported earlier this year, VA has made significant
progress establishing its national formulary. Specifically,
about 90 percent of outpatient prescriptions were for national
formulary drugs. Moreover, both prescribers and veterans
generally report having access to the drugs they need.
Today, however, I would like to focus on our conclusion
that VA needs to improve its oversight to fully achieve its
standardization goal and to correct weaknesses in the waiver
process for obtaining non-formulary drugs.
My first point is that VA has not fully achieved its goal
of a standardized drug benefit, that is, that veterans should
have access to the same drugs regardless of which medical
center they visit. Noncompliance with VA's formulary directive,
as well as VA's own policy allowing the networks flexibility to
meet local needs with appropriate oversight, have impeded VA's
Regarding compliance, we found that two of the three
medical centers we visited in the spring of 2000 omitted
national formulary drugs. One omitted 25 percent. The other
omitted 13 percent. Together, nearly 450 drugs for high blood
pressure, mental disorders, women's medical needs, cancer
treatment, and digestive disorders were not available as
formulary choices. As a result, physicians at these two medical
centers had to obtain approval to write over 22,000
prescriptions for drugs that should have been available without
question. This wasted valuable clinical time and delayed
Chairman Rockefeller. Ms. Bascetta, I am going to interrupt
you at this time because I want all of us to pause for a
moment. It was at precisely this minute 3 years ago that
Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson of the U.S.
Capitol Police were killed in the line of duty while trying to
stop an intruder, so I think it would be appropriate for us to
pay our respects in a moment of silence.
[A moment of silence was observed.]
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you. Please proceed.
Ms. Bascetta. Thank you. Regarding flexibility to
supplement the national formulary locally, we found that VA
lacked criteria for determining the appropriateness of the
network's actions when adding drugs. As a result, the
flexibility given to the networks, while critical to ensuring
that the health care needs of all veterans are met, could erode
standardization if not closely managed.
During our review, all 22 networks added drugs not found on
the national formulary, and they ranged from as few as five in
one network to as many as 63 in another. In all, the networks
added nearly 250 unique drugs.
My second point is that VA also needs better oversight of
access to non-formulary drugs. VA policy requires that each
network implement a process for obtaining drugs for veterans
whose needs cannot be met by the formulary. In addition,
networks are required to track both approvals and denials of
non-formulary drugs.However, we found weaknesses in their
approval processes. For example, although 40 percent of
prescribers we surveyed reported being able to obtain approvals
in a few hours, or even minutes, the other 60 percent reported
much longer times, an average of 9 days. Prescribers were
almost equally divided in their views on the ease or difficulty
of obtaining non-formulary drugs. About 32 percent said it was
difficult, while 29 percent said it was easy. Most important,
however, 15 of the 22 networks had not complied with national
policy to track non-formulary requests. Twelve had tracked
neither approvals nor denials, and three tracked only
approvals. Consequently, VA does not know if its approved
requests meet VA's national criteria or if denied requests are
Mr. Chairman, VA concurred with our conclusions and the
recommendations we made to better achieve its standardization
goal and to strengthen its oversight of the non-formulary
process. While it is too early to tell how successful
implementation will be, we are encouraged by the steps VA has
taken and plans to take to implement our recommendations. We
urge VA to issue its revised formulary directive, which is a
significant improvement over current policy, as quickly as
possible and to follow through with continuous oversight to
ensure that veterans receive the pharmacy benefit in a well-
This concludes my remarks and I would be happy to answer
any questions that you might have.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you very much, indeed.
[The prepared statement of Ms. Bascetta follows:]
Prepared Statement of Cynthia A. Bascetta, Director, Health Care,
Veterans' Health Care and Benefits Issues, U.S. General Accounting
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:
I am pleased to be here today to discuss the Department of Veterans
Affairs (VA) management and oversight of its national drug formulary.
VA's national formulary is intended, in part, to control costs and
better ensure that veterans have access to the same drugs regardless of
which VA medical center they visit. VA medical centers were directed to
make all national formulary drugs available to prescribers health care
providers who have VA prescription-writing privileges.\1\ To meet local
patient needs, VA allows its 22 networks to add drugs to supplement the
national formulary.\2\ VA also requires each network to establish an
approval process for obtaining drugs not listed in its formulary.
\1\ Veterans Health Administration's Directive 97-047, VA National
Formulary Directive, Oct. 16, 1997.
\2\ In 1995, VA began transforming its delivery and management of
health care to expand access to care and increase efficiency. VA
decentralize decisionmaking and budgeting authority to 22 regional
Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN), which became responsible
for managing all VA health care.
My testimony addresses problems we identified in two recent reports
regarding implementation and standardization of the formulary and the
approval process for nonformulary drugs at each network.\3\ In
conducting our work, we reviewed the formulary policies and activities
of VA's headquarters and its 22 networks, analyzed nationwide VA
prescription data, conducted site visits and interviewed VA officials
at three medical centers located in three different networks, and
surveyed 2,000 prescribers. We also updated this statement to reflect
VA's most recent actions to implement our recommendations for improving
its management and oversight.
\3\ VA Health Care: VA's Management of Drugs on Its National
Formulary (GAO/HEHS-00-34, Dec. 14, 1999) and VA Drug Formulary: Better
Oversight Is Required, but Veterans Are Getting Needed Drugs (GAO-01-
183, Jan. 29, 2001).
In summary, while VA has made significant progress establishing a
national formulary that has generally met with prescribers' and
patients' acceptance, VA's oversight has not been sufficient to fully
ensure standardization of its drug benefit nationwide. In our January
2001 report, we found that the three medical centers we visited were
not in compliance with the national formulary. Specifically, two of
three medical centers omitted more than 140 required national formulary
drugs, and all three facilities inappropriately modified the national
formulary list of required drugs for certain drug classes by adding or
omitting some drugs. In addition, as VA policy allows, VISNs added
drugs to supplement the national formulary ranging from 5 drugs at one
VISN to 63 drugs at another. However, VA lacked criteria for
determining the appropriateness of the actions networks took to add
In addition to problems standardizing the national formulary, we
identified weaknesses in the nonformulary approval process. While the
national formulary directive requires certain criteria for approving
nonformulary drugs, it does not prescribe a specific nonformulary
approval process. As a result, the processes health care providers must
follow to obtain nonformulary drugs differ among VA facilities
regarding how requests are made, who receives them, who approves them,
and how long it takes to obtain approval. We found that the length of
time to approve nonformulary drugs averages 9 days, but can be as short
as a few minutes in some medical centers. In addition, some VISNs have
not established processes to collect and analyze data on nonformulary
requests. As a result, VA does not know if approved requests meet its
established criteria or if denied requests are appropriate.
In our January 2001 report, we made several recommendations to VA
to improve its management and oversight of its national formulary. VA
concurred with all of our recommendations and has taken, or plans to
take, steps to implement them. Although these are clearly steps in the
right direction, it is too early to tell how successful VA will be in
establishing the continuous oversight needed to improve formulary
In fiscal year 2000, VA's pharmacy benefit provided approximately
86 million prescriptions at a cost of approximately $2 billion or about
12 percent of VA's total health care budget, compared to 6 percent of
VA's total health care budget a decade ago. VA provides outpatient
pharmacy services free to veterans receiving medications for treatment
of service-connected conditions and to low-income veterans. Other
veterans who have prescriptions filled by VA may be charged a copayment
for each 30-day supply of medication.\4\
\4\ Section 201 of the Veterans Millennium Health Care and Benefits
Act (P.L. 106-117) authorized the Secretary of the Department of
Veterans Affairs to prescribe regulations to increase the copayment for
each 30-day supply of medication for outpatient treatment of non-
service-connected disabilities or conditions and to establish maximum
monthly and maximum annual pharmaceutical copayments for veterans who
have multiple outpatient prescriptions. In response, the Secretary has
proposed regulations that, among other things, increases the copayment
from $2 to $7. (Fed. Reg., Vol. 66, No. 136, July 16, 2001, pp. 36960-
Like many health care organizations, VA uses several measures in an
effort to improve quality of care and control pharmacy costs. These
include (1) implementing a national formulary, which standardizes the
list of drugs available; (2) developing clinical guidelines for
prescribing drugs; and (3) using compliance programs, such as prior
authorization, to encourage or require physicians to prescribe
VA medical centers individually began using formularies as early as
1955 to manage their pharmacy inventories. However, it was not until 40
years later in September 1995, that VA established a centralized group
to manage its pharmacy benefit nationwide. In November 1995, when VISNs
were established, VA's Under Secretary for Health directed each VISN to
develop and implement a VISN-wide formulary. To develop their
formularies, the VISNs generally combined existing medical center
formularies and eliminated rarely prescribed drugs. In 1996, VA was
required to improve veterans' access to care regardless of the region
of the United States in which they live. As part of its response, VA
implemented a national drug formulary on June 1, 1997, by combining the
core set of drugs common to the newly developed VISN formularies. VA's
formulary meets the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Health
Care Organizations' requirements for developing and maintaining an
appropriate selection of medications for prescribers to use in treating
their patient populations.
VA's formulary lists more than 1,100 unique drugs in 254 drug
classes groups of drugs similar in chemistry, method of action, or
purpose of use. After performing reviews of drug classes representing
the highest costs and volume of prescriptions, VA decided that some
drugs in 4 of its 254 drug classes were therapeutically interchangeable
that is, essentially equivalent in terms of efficacy, safety, and
outcomes. This determination allowed VA to select one or more of these
drugs for its formulary so that it could seek better prices through
competitively bid committed-use contracts.\5\ Other therapeutically
equivalent drugs in these classes were then excluded from the
formulary. These four classes are known as ``closed'' classes. VA has
not made clinical decisions regarding therapeutic interchange in the
remaining 250 drug classes, and it does not limit the number of drugs
that can be added to these classes. These are known as ``open''
\5\ Under committed-use contracts, VA commits to using primarily
the contract drug, instead of other therapeutically interchangeable
drugs, to guarantee drug companies a high volume of use in exchange for
To manage its pharmacy benefit nationwide, VA established the
Pharmacy Benefits Management Strategic Healthcare Group (PBM). PBM is
responsible for managing the national formulary list, maintaining
databases that reflect drug use, and monitoring the use of certain
drugs. PBM also facilitates the addition and deletion of drugs on the
national formulary on the basis of safety and efficacy data, determines
which drugs are therapeutically interchangeable in order to purchase
drugs through competitive bidding, and develops safeguards to protect
veterans from the inappropriate use of certain drugs. VISN directors
are responsible for implementing and monitoring compliance with the
national formulary and ensuring that a nonformulary drug approval
process is functioning at each of their medical centers. Although VISN
and medical center directors are held accountable in annual performance
agreements for meeting certain national and local goals, attaining
formulary goals has not been part of their performance standards.
national formulary standardization not yet achieved
While VA has made significant progress in establishing a national
formulary, its oversight has not been sufficient to ensure that it is
fully achieving its national formulary goal of standardizing its drug
benefit nationwide. In our January 2001 report, we found three factors
that have impeded formulary standardization: (1) medical centers we
visited omitted some national formulary drugs from their local
formularies, (2) VISNs varied in the number of drugs they added to
local formularies to supplement the national formulary without
appropriate oversight, and (3) medical centers inappropriately added or
deleted drugs in closed classes. Nevertheless, most prescribed drugs
were on the national formulary, and prescribers and patients were
generally satisfied with the national formulary.
The first factor impeding standardization is that medical centers
omitted some national formulary drugs from their local formularies.
Almost 3 years after VA facilities were directed to make all national
formulary drugs available locally, two of the three medical centers we
visited in spring of 2000 omitted required drugs from the formularies
used by their prescribers. At one medical center, about 25 percent (286
drugs) of the national formulary drugs were not available as formulary
choices. These included drugs used to treat high blood pressure, mental
disorders, and women's medical needs. At the second medical center,
about 13 percent (147 drugs) of the national formulary drugs were
omitted, including drugs used to treat certain types of cancer and
others used to treat stomach conditions.
From October 1999 through March 2000, health care providers at
these two medical centers had to obtain nonformulary drug approvals for
over 22,000 prescriptions for drugs that should have been available
without question because they are on the national formulary. Our
analysis showed that at the first center, over 14,000 prescriptions
were filled as nonformulary drugs for 91 drugs that should have been on
the formulary.\6\ At the other medical center, over 8,000 prescriptions
for 23 national formulary drugs were filled as nonformulary drugs. If
the national formulary had been properly implemented at these medical
centers, prescribers would not have had to use extra time to request
and obtain nonformulary drug approvals for these drugs, and patients
could have started treatment earlier.
\6\ After our visit, we were informed by a pharmacy official that
the medical center adopted the national formulary as its own on June
The second factor impeding standardization is the wide variation in
the number of drugs added by VISNs to their local formularies. VA's
policy allowing VISNs to supplement the national formulary locally has
the potential for conflicting with VA's goal of achieving
standardization if it is not closely managed. From June 1997 through
March 2000, the 22 VISNs added a total of 244 unique drugs to
supplement the list of drugs on the national formulary. As figure 1
shows, the number of drugs added by each VISN varies widely, ranging
from as many as 63 to as few as 5. Adding drugs to supplement the
national formulary is intended to allow VISNs to be responsive to the
unique needs of their patients and to allow quicker formulary
designation of new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA).\7\ VA officials have acknowledged that this variation affects
standardization and told us they plan to address it. For example, PBM
plans to more quickly review new drugs when approved by FDA to
determine if they should be added to the national formulary.
\7\ VA national formulary policy provides that a new drug must be
on the market for a minimum of 1 year before it can be added to the
Figure 1: Variation in Number of Unique Drugs VISNs Added to Supplement
VA's National Formulary, June 1997-March 2000
Source: GAO analysis of PBM data.
The third factor is that medical centers we visited inappropriately
modified the national formulary list of drugs in the closed classes.
Contrary to VA formulary policy, two of three medical centers added two
different drugs to two of the four closed classes, and one facility did
not make a drug in a closed class available. Moreover, the Institute of
Medicine (IOM) found broad nonconformity at the VISN level.\8\
Specifically, IOM reported that 16 of the 22 VISNs modified the list of
national formulary drugs for the closed classes.\9\ This also
undermines VA's ability to achieve cost savings through its committed-
\8\ In June 2000, IOM issued a report on the effect VA's national
formulary has had on the cost and quality of VA health care, the
restrictiveness of VA's national formulary, and how the national
formulary compares with private and other government formularies. (IOM,
Description and Analysis of the VA National Formulary [Washington,
D.C.: IOM, June 2000].)
\9\ IOM, Description and Analysis of the VA National Formulary, pp.
While VA has not yet fully achieved national formulary
standardization, most prescribed drugs were on the national formulary.
From October 1999 through March 2000, 90 percent of VA outpatient
prescriptions were written for national formulary drugs. The percentage
of national formulary drug prescriptions filled by individual VISNs
varied slightly, from 89 percent to 92 percent. We found wider
variation among medical centers within VISNs 84 percent to 96 percent.
Of the remaining 10 percent of prescriptions filled systemwide,
VA's national database could not distinguish between nonformulary drugs
and drugs added to local formularies by VISNs and medical centers to
supplement the national formulary. VA's PBM and the IOM estimate that
drugs added to supplement the national formulary probably account for
about 7 percent of all prescriptions filled, and nonformulary drugs
account for approximately 3 percent of all prescriptions filled. VA
officials told us that they are modifying the database to enable them
to identify which drugs are added to supplement the national formulary
and which are nonformulary. This will allow them to better oversee the
balance between local needs and national standardization.
Prescribers we surveyed reported they were generally satisfied with
the national formulary. Seventy percent of VA prescribers in our survey
reported that the formulary includes the drugs their patients need
either to a ``great extent'' or to a ``very great extent.''
Approximately 27 percent reported that the formulary meets their
patients' needs to a ``moderate extent,'' with 4 percent reporting that
it meets their patients' needs to a lesser extent. No VA prescribers
reported that the formulary meets their patients' needs to ``very
little or no extent.'' This is consistent with IOM's conclusion that
the VA formulary ``is not overly restrictive.''
Veterans also appear satisfied with their ability to obtain the
drugs they believe they need. At the VA medical centers we visited,
patient advocates \10\ told us that veterans made very few complaints
concerning their prescriptions. In its analysis of patient complaints,
IOM found that less than one-half of 1 percent of veterans' complaints
were related to drug access.\11\ IOM further reported that complaints
involving specific identifiable drugs often involved drugs that are
marketed directly to consumers, such as Viagra.\12\ Our review also
indicated that the few prescription complaints made were often related
to veterans trying to obtain ``lifestyle'' drugs or refusals by VA
physicians and pharmacists to fill prescriptions written by non-VA
health care providers.\13\ VA may fill prescriptions written by non-VA
health care providers only under limited circumstances, for example,
when the veteran is housebound and receives additional compensation
because of a service-connected disability.\14\
\10\ Patient advocates are VA employees who are responsible for
receiving and acting on complaints from veterans.
\11\ IOM obtained formulary-related complaints from a nationwide
database of veteran complaints for over 90 percent of all VA facilities
representing all 22 VISNs. IOM determined that only 2,385 of 570,937
veteran complaints were attributed to the national formulary. No VISN
had significantly more complaints than any other. (IOM, Description and
Analysis of the VA National Formulary, p. 145.)
\12\ Viagra (sildenafil), which is used to treat erectile
dysfunction, is available within VA only through the nonformulary drug
\13\ We asked prescribers in our survey how often in 1999 their
patients asked them to rewrite prescriptions from non-VA prescribers so
that they could be filled by VA. Thirty-one percent said ``often'' or
``very often,'' 34 percent reported that it occurred ``occasionally,''
and 21 percent said ``seldom.'' Fourteen percent said that they never
received such requests.
\14\ See 38 U.S.C. Sec. 1712(d); 38 C.F.R. Sec. 17.96, and Op. VA
Gen. Coun. 41-91 (1991).
approval processes for nonformulary drugs have weaknesses
While the national formulary directive requires certain criteria
for approval of nonformulary drugs, it does not prescribe a specific
nonformulary approval process. As a result, the processes health care
providers must follow to obtain nonformulary drugs differ among VA
facilities regarding how requests are made, who receives them, who
approves them, and how long it takes to obtain approval. In addition,
some VISNs have not established processes to collect and analyze data
on nonformulary requests. As a result, VA does not know if approved
requests meet its established criteria or if denied requests are
Both the people involved and the length of time to approve
nonformulary drugs varied. The person who first receives a nonformulary
drug approval request may not be the person who approves it. For
example, 61 percent of prescribers reported that nonformulary drug
requests must first be submitted to facility pharmacists, 14 percent
said they must first be submitted to facility pharmacy and therapeutics
(P&T) committees, and 8 percent said they must first be sent to service
chiefs. In contrast, 31 percent of prescribers reported that facility
pharmacists approve nonformulary drug requests, 26 percent said that
facility P&T committees approve them, and 15 percent told us that
facility chiefs of staff approve them. The remaining 28 percent
reported that various other facility officials or members of the
medical staff approve nonformulary drug requests. The time required to
obtain approval for use of a nonformulary drug also varied depending on
the local approval processes. The majority of prescribers we surveyed
(60 percent) reported that it took an average of 9 days to obtain
approval for use of nonformulary drugs.\15\ But many prescribers also
reported that it took only a few hours (18 percent) or minutes (22
percent) to obtain such approvals.
\15\ In emergencies, exceptions are made to allow the patient to
obtain the drug more quickly.
During our medical center visits, we observed that some medical
center approval processes are less expeditious than others. For
example, to obtain approval to use a nonformulary drug in one facility
we visited, prescribers were required to submit a request in writing to
the P&T committee for its review and approval. Because the P&T
committee met only once a month, the final approval to use the
requested drug was sometimes delayed as long as 30 days. The requesting
prescriber, however, could write a prescription for an immediate 30-day
supply if the medication need was urgent.
In contrast, another medical center we visited assigned a clinical
pharmacist to work directly with health care providers to help with
drug selection, establish dose levels, and facilitate the approval of
nonformulary drugs. In that facility, clinical pharmacists were allowed
to approve the use of nonformulary drugs. If a health care provider
believed that a patient should be prescribed a nonformulary drug, the
physician and pharmacist could consult at the point of care and make a
final decision with virtually no delay.
Prescribers we surveyed were almost equally divided on the ease or
difficulty of getting nonformulary drug requests approved. (See table
Table 1: Ease of Obtaining Nonformulary Drug Approvals Reported by
Response categories reporting
``Easy'' or ``very easy''.................................. 29
``About as easy as difficult''............................. 40
``Difficult'' or ``very difficult''........................ 32
Note: Percentages do not total 100 because of rounding.
Source: GAO survey.
Regardless of whether the nonformulary drug approval process was
perceived as easy or difficult, the majority of prescribers told us
that their requests were generally approved. According to our survey
results, 65 percent of prescribers sought approval for nonformulary
drugs in 1999. These prescribers reported that they made, on average,
25 such requests (the median was 10 requests). We estimated that 84
percent of all prescribers' nonformulary requests were approved.
When a nonformulary drug request was disapproved, 60 percent of
prescribers reported that they switched to a formulary drug. However,
more than one-quarter of the prescribers who had nonformulary drug
requests disapproved resubmitted their requests with additional
For patients moving from one location to another, the majority of
prescribers we surveyed told us that they were more likely to convert
VA patients who were on a nonformulary drug obtained at another VA
facility to a formulary drug than to request approval for the
nonformulary drug. (See table 2.)
Table 2: Likelihood of Prescribers' Converting Patients From
Nonformulary Drug Prescriptions to Formulary Drug Prescriptions
Response categories reporting
``Likely to convert'' or ``very likely to convert''........ 64
``As likely to convert as to seek approval for the 18
``Likely to seek approval for the nonformulary drug'' or 18
``very likely to seek approval of nonformulary drug''.....
Source: GAO survey.
Contrary to the national formulary policy, not all VISNs have
established a process for collecting and analyzing data on nonformulary
requests at the VISN and local levels. Twelve of VA's 22 VISNs reported
that they do not collect information on approved and denied
nonformulary drug requests. Three VISNs reported that they collect
information only on approved nonformulary drug requests, and seven
reported that they collect information for both approved and denied
requests. Such information could help VA officials to determine the
extent to which nonformulary drugs are being requested and whether
medical center processes for approving these requests meet established
criteria. In its report, IOM noted that inadequate documentation on
such matters could diminish confidence in the nonformulary process.
plans for improving oversight are progressing
We are encouraged by VA's actions, but it is too early to tell how
successful it will be in addressing our recommendations for improving
its management and oversight of the national formulary. To improve
standardization of its formulary, we recommended that VA establish (1)
a mechanism to ensure that VISN directors comply with VA's national
formulary policy and (2) criteria that VISNs should use to determine
the appropriateness of adding drugs to supplement the national
formulary and monitor the VISNs' application of these criteria. VA's
PBM has developed changes to its database that will provide comparative
national data on VISN, nonformulary, and national formulary drug use.
PBM also plans to share these data, including identification of
outliers, with all 22 VISNs and coordinate with VISN formulary leaders
to facilitate consistent compliance with national formulary policy. In
addition, VA (1) drafted criteria for VISNs to use to determine the
appropriateness of adding drugs to supplement the national formulary
list, which it intends to include in a directive; (2) is developing a
template for VISNs to document all VISN formulary additions; and (3)
intends to review more quickly all new FDA-approved drugs for inclusion
in the national formulary.
To improve its nonformulary drug approval process, we recommended
that (1) VA establish a process to ensure timely and appropriate
decisions by medical centers and (2) veterans be allowed continued
access to previously approved nonformulary drugs, regardless of where
they seek care in VA's health care system. In addressing these
recommendations, VA plans to incorporate into its revised formulary
directive the fundamental steps that all medical centers must take in
establishing and reporting their nonformulary activities. VA also plans
to include in its revised formulary directive a specific requirement
that approved nonformulary medications will continue if a veteran
changes his or her care to a different VA facility.
We also recommended that VA enforce existing requirements that
VISNs collect and analyze the data needed to determine that
nonformulary drug approval processes are implemented appropriately and
effectively in their medical centers, including tracking both approved
and denied requests. VA plans to establish steps for reporting its
nonformulary approval activities. PBM has begun initial discussions
with VA's Information Management Office about planning for the changes.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be
happy to answer any questions you or other members of the Committee may
Chairman Rockefeller. In fact, Dr. Herdman, I actually
intended to call on you first, and I don't regret not calling
on you first, but that was my intention, simply because you
have the Institute of Medicine's report on these matters and I
think it does make sense for you to give that overview, if you
would be willing to do so, sir.
STATEMENT OF ROGER HERDMAN, M.D., DIRECTOR, NATIONAL CANCER
POLICY BOARD, INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE
Dr. Herdman. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The Institute is very
happy that you asked us to come and brief you on our report, a
copy of which I think you have, but I will leave some copies
I am currently the Director of the National Cancer Policy
Board, but as you know, Mr. Chairman, last year when we
delivered our report to you and to the Veterans Administration,
I was the director of that particular study. That study was
ordered up by the Congress and paid for in its entirety by the
VA and we were asked to look at four issues: The
restrictiveness of the VA's national formulary, its effects on
quality, its effects on cost, and a comparison of the national
formulary with formularies in other private and public sector
In general, the IOM committee that performed this report
supported the VA national formulary, but pointed out some
problems and made some recommendations for corrections of
problems. I might say parenthetically that we were coordinating
with the GAO insofar as their policies and procedures allow and
that we are in general agreement with their findings.
The committee found that a formulary is the continually
revised list of pharmaceuticals selected for patient care. The
history of formularies goes back over 200 years in this
country, and almost all Americans are now covered by
formularies. VA began using formularies along with other U.S.
hospitals and encouraged by the JCAHO about 50 years ago, so
formularies are not new. They have been for decades standard
features of organized health care systems.
The VA formulary is a list of about 1,200 drugs. It
provides a uniform national entitlement, or intends to provide
a uniform national entitlement to a selection of drugs
reasonably comparable to that of other formularies and it
restricts access to a small number of drug classes comprising
about 15 percent of the dollar cost of the pharmacy benefit.
That is, it is partially closed. By allowing choice among
products and by its ability to influence market share in closed
or preferred classes, the formulary allowed the health care
system to present drug sellers with a price-sensitive demand
and thereby to negotiate lower prices, and that is the point of
The IOM committee did not find convincing high-quality
scientific studies or other persuasive evidence that
formularies in general, or the VA national formulary
specifically, have deleterious effects on the quality of care
unless they had arbitrary controls or benefit restrictions that
excluded medically necessary drugs or had limits on
prescriptions or caps on volume or the like. The VA national
formulary does not have such features and drugs that are not
listed in closed classes are available by a non-formulary
exceptions process, although, as Ms. Bascetta has pointed out,
there are problems with that process.
Specifically, the committee reviewed the elements of
restrictiveness and those elements are listed in our report. I
will summarize by just saying that we did not find that the
VA's national formulary was overly restrictive, although as has
been said here now several times, the non-formulary exceptions
process was found to be inconsistent across the country without
accurate reporting of results.
We reviewed changes in six classes before and after the
national formulary, from January 1995 to July 31, 1999. The VA
has estimated that about $572 million was saved over that time
period from their contracting and acquisitions process. That
includes items that are not part of the national formulary. We
estimated that over a slightly shorter time period,
conservatively, $100 million was saved. This did not include
one closed class, blanket purchase agreements or other missing
data, and that represents substantial saving.
With respect to quality, we reviewed a number of aspects of
quality, primarily structural, and found that there was no
noticeable effect on quality, although the data are not
adequate to really make a strong case one way or the other.
So we made a number of recommendations and I am going to
briefly enumerate them. We recommended that the VA not wait, as
they do now, or did then, for 1 year before considering new
drugs approved by the FDA for addition to formularies. We
recommended that the VA consider, as Ms. Bascetta has pointed
out, the divergence of VISN, that is, regional and local
formularies from each other and from the national formulary,
and move toward more uniformity.
And we recommended that the VA construct a policy on
therapeutic interchange, that is, substitution of formulary
drugs for non-formulary drugs that are prescribed, and make one
that does not subject veterans to frequent changes from one
drug to another when contracting or formulary changes are made.
And we recommended in general that the formulary be
continued and that the drugs in closed classes continue to be
restricted and that the VA continue to negotiate prices, which
they were doing, but that they collect better information,
better data on their costs, patient-level data on inpatient,
outpatient, and pharmacy costs, which would allow them to
assess the impact on costs of the national formulary, and in
particular to assess the impact of offsetting costs, shifting
from various parts of the VA budget to other parts of the VA
I apologize for being a little bit over time, Mr. Chairman,
but that concludes my report and I would be happy to answer any
Chairman Rockefeller. No, don't apologize. We have this
weird system here based upon the concept that, somehow, if we
have red, yellow, and green lights, that we become efficient.
I have never heard that word applied to either the Senate
or any part in the Senate, so don't be embarrassed. But on the
other hand, let me also say that all of your testimony is
included in the record automatically, and the light is just a
subtle reminder--we are thinking about having firecrackers and
things go off, but we haven't reached that point yet.
[The prepared statement of Dr. Herdman follows:]
Prepared Statement of Roger Herdman, M.D., Director, National Cancer
Policy Board, Institute of Medicine
In June 2000 the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) VA Pharmacy
Formulary Analysis Committee (the committee) delivered to the
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and to House and Senate committees,
including the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, a report on the VA
National Formulary which had been requested in 1998 by the House
Appropriations Committee in House Report 105-610. The report responded
to four concerns outlined in the House Report: the restrictiveness of
the formulary, its effect on quality of care of veterans, its effect on
costs to the VA, and a comparison to other public- and private-sector
formularies. Senator Rockefeller, then ranking minority member of the
Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, aware of and interested in the
IOM study, also at about that time asked the U. S. General Accounting
Office (GAO) to look at related issues with the VA formulary. The IOM
and GAO coordinated efforts to comply with these congressional
requests. The IOM also received substantial cooperation and information
from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), especially the Pharmacy
Benefits Management Strategic Healthcare Group (PBM). The IOM work was
funded exclusively under a contract with the VA. The IOM committee was
made up of experts from the private sector with extensive expertise and
experience in medicine, epidemiology, pharmacology, pharmacy, pharmacy
benefits and formulary management, nursing, managed care, health
economics, and representatives from the Disabled American Veterans and
the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Although individual veterans health facilities have used
formularies beginning 40 to 50 years ago, only in 1997 was the VA
National Formulary implemented. It is a list of about 1,200 generic,
brand name, and over-the-counter drugs, devices, and supplies that
provides the basis for a uniform national entitlement for all regions
and facilities of the VHA, including 22 VISN (regional) and many local
formularies. The formulary system consists of all measures that the VHA
employs to manage the use of agents on its lists, including a non-
formulary exceptions process, drug class reviews, the use of pharmacy
and therapeutics (P&T) committees, and drug treatment guidelines. The
National Formulary is partially closed, that is, some drug classes are
closed or subject to restrictions, limiting choice to certain preferred
of committed-use agents as a way of supporting VA negotiations for
lower drug prices and meeting VHA market share objectives. Generic
prescribing, generic substitution and therapeutic interchange (that is,
substitution of a formulary for a non-formulary drug within a drug
class) are also employed in managing the formulary system. Although
minimal copayments have been imposed on some classes of veterans, to
date they have not been available as a practical formulary management
Restrictiveness: The IOM report first discussed whether the VA
National Formulary was overly restrictive. According to the committee,
if the formulary structure or formulary system controls deny or
significantly delay access to drugs that, in the reasonable judgment of
medical experts, are clinically indicated, then the VA formulary meets
the definition of overly restrictive. Criteria of restrictiveness
include: number of items on the formulary, number of closed classes,
number of drugs in the closed classes, timeliness of addition of new
drugs, responsiveness on the non-formulary exceptions process,
sensitivity of therapeutic interchange policies to patient risks, OTC
coverage, and generic substitution. Other limits might include:
exclusion of drugs or drug classes, prescription quantity of number
limits, high copayments, and prior approval policies, although these
are often considered more in the nature of scope of benefit
definitions. The committee found that, for the most part, the VA
National Formulary compared well with formularies in the private or
Medicaid sector. It was not overly restrictive, by informed medical
judgment, in terms of overall coverage, conservative closure of classes
and numbers of items in a closed class, OTC coverage, and generic
substitution. Some problems were identified in non-formulary exceptions
processes, therapeutic interchange, and timeliness of addition of newly
FDA-approved drugs having to do with consistency across the VHA,
national policies, and patient satisfaction, which will be referred to
later under recommendations. The committee also reviewed what was known
about physician and patient satisfaction related to the National
Formulary as a possible indicator of restrictiveness. Although there
was some evidence of dissatisfaction from VA complaint records and
physician surveys, and although there were shortcomings in the quality
of these data, in general they did not indicate high levels of specific
complaints or dissatisfaction. The committee concluded that at the time
the study was done, the VA National Formulary was not overly
Costs: With the help of economists from the Harvard Medical School
Department of Health Care Policy, the committee next examined the
effect of the VA National Formulary on the cost of drugs to the VHA. In
economic terms, the objective of the VA National Formulary is to make
the demand for specific prescription drugs more responsive to price
than might otherwise have been the case. Formularies increase a buyer's
bargaining power, enabling buyers to be more aggressive in price
negotiation. By excluding certain products or by shifting demand
significantly between competing products, the buyer presents a seller
with a more elastic, or price-responsive, demand, thereby inducing a
lower price. The greater the ability to direct the volume of
prescriptions between competing products, the more elastic the demand
and the greater the bargaining power of the buyer. Of course, the buyer
must be careful not to exclude medically necessary drugs or implement
interchanges that cause risks to patients.
As of February 2000, the VA claimed that the difference between
actual expenditures on drugs and what would have been spent absent the
National Formulary and other contracting activities from FY 1996
through FY 2000 amounted to over $572 million. The IOM used a more
conservative approach, which counted only savings from favorable price
negotiations multiplied by drug use in six closed or preferred classes
and did not include blanket purchase agreements, generic purchases
under contract, bulk buying, and savings from patent expirations, among
others. The IOM method also compared pre-National Formulary prices with
post-National Formulary prices over a more limited time (from the date
of class closure to opening or end of data in July 1999). Estimated
savings approximated $100 million over about the first two years of the
National Formulary, that is, about 3% of total pharmacy or 15% of the
six closed and preferred class expenditures analyzed over that time
period. The committee also explored changes in inpatient use associated
with changes in the formulary. By the gross techniques used, no
significant changes were observed. The committee concluded that the VA
National Formulary was cost saving, probably generating savings of $100
million over two years and did not appear to have any effect on
hospital admissions for selected heart- or ulcer-related conditions.
Quality: Quality of care is the degree to which health services for
individuals and populations increase the likelihood of desired outcomes
and are consistent with current professional knowledge. There are few
data on anything except the structural characteristics of the VA
National Formulary, and the committee found only very scanty data
directly relating formulary elements to veterans' healthcare outcomes.
Therefore, the committee looked predominantly at structural factors.
These included clinical pharmacy services, local facility P&T
committees, VISN formulary committees, the VA PBM and Medical Advisory
Panel (MAP). The committee also examined the quality and availability
of existing and newly FDA-approved drugs on the formulary, drug class
reviews and therapeutic guidelines, the non-formulary process,
therapeutic interchange policies, and drug utilization review. As noted
earlier, the IOM noted no changes in hospital utilization as a result
of the National Formulary, and existing (and often flawed) survey data
did not persuasively indicate substantial levels of patient or
There is some evidence that VHA pharmacy services and the
performance of pharmacists in clinical roles have been strengthened and
improved, and although this has been to some extent independent of the
National Formulary, it probably has had a beneficial effect on quality
of care. It is uncertain whether the implementation of the National
Formulary has diminished the role of local P&T committees which could
effect quality of prescribing in local facilities. VISN level formulary
committees appear in some cases to be dominated by pharmacists raising
the question of whether they emphasize pharmacy budgetary issues over
quality of pharmaceutical care. The committee assessed the performance
of the VA PBM and MAP by examining the quality of the formulary and
formulary system. In general, no serious problems that could affect
quality were observed, although recommendations (described later) were
made in the areas of therapeutic interchange, non-formulary exceptions,
and additions of newly FDA-approved drugs, among others. These might
indicate some quality problems. In the opinion of the IOM committee, VA
drug class reviews and therapeutic guidelines were of high professional
quality and likely to have a good effect on quality of care.
Unfortunately, identification and tracking of adverse drug events,
which could be important indicators of quality effects, are so spotty
and incomplete that they are not useful.
The committee concluded that a completely firm and final answer to
the question of quality would require scientifically sound evidence of
formulary influences on quality of care that affect process of care and
health outcomes of veterans, but there are no such epidemiological or
other well-designed studies of the VHA. The absence of persuasive
reports of substantial worsening of health outcomes in the medical
literature attributable to a closed or partially closed formulary
either for the VHA or for millions of covered lives in managed care
(MCO) or private sector pharmacy benefit management organizations is
not proof of no effect, although it is somewhat reassuring. Based on
the available information and the committee's analysis, the committee
concluded, therefore, that there is no reason to abandon the National
Formulary and every reason to improve it.
Comparisons: Almost all MCOs offer pharmacy benefits and have
formularies which are closed or partially closed. In general, these
formularies employ prior approvals, exclusions, and copayments which
were not part of the VA National Formulary at the time of the IOM
study. They also may use generic substitution and therapeutic
interchange (although almost always only with permission of the
prescriber). Medicaid formularies vary from state to state. They tend
to be inclusive as only limited exclusions are allowed by law if drug
companies want their drugs included and agree to sign rebate
agreements. However, prior approvals are common and various other
limits, such as prescription limits on quantity or frequency, may be
used which are not part of the VA National Formulary. The DOD benefit,
formularies, and formulary systems were in transition at the time of
the IOM study. The DOD Basic Core Formulary, mail order formulary, and
multiple treatment facility formularies were not comparable to the VA
National Formulary and formulary system.
In examining public and private sector formularies in comparison to
the VHA, the committee concluded that some are more open, for example,
Medicaid programs are required to offer all drugs on the Federal Supply
Schedule that manufacturers list for rebates. Some are more
restrictive. They require prior approvals and exclude some drugs. All
are variable, some probably more so than the VA. Some controls that
were not part of the VA system at the time of the study, such as
relatively costly deductibles and copayments, may present real barriers
to needed drugs, especially for low-income patients. These controls are
part of DOD requirements for some eligibles or employed by some managed
care plans. Other controls, such as generic substitution and
therapeutic interchange are in common use in many systems. Overall, the
committee concluded that the National Formulary's effects on quality
are likely comparable to those of formularies in private and other
The IOM committee proposed nine recommendations.
With respect to VA use of a National Formulary, the committee
recommended that the VA should continue to close classes prudently and
to practice generic substitution and therapeutic interchange of branded
drugs to meet its particular quality and price objectives.
With respect to management of the formulary, the VA should examine
drugs newly approved by the FDA in a timely manner and abandon the
fixed waiting period of one year before addition to the formulary.
Drugs that provide significant improvement in treatment options should
be given priority review.
The balance between standardization and systemwide uniformity and
deference to local autonomy and preferences in the VA National
Formulary should be recalibrated towards a more uniform national
approach before divergence or inconsistencies in the formularies (which
sometimes exceed 100 drugs) and formulary systems increase further.
Therapeutic interchange should be consistent in important practices
and policies of notification and control. The VA should develop and
implement a policy on the frequency and number of interchanges in long-
term drug therapy that can result from formulary or contract changes.
Improvements in consistency and reporting of the non-formulary
process should be made. The VHA should mount pilot tests of non-
formulary exceptions processes that increase responsiveness and
physician and patient acceptance.
The VHA should improve acceptance of the National Formulary by its
stakeholders, including members of the health professionals and
veterans, by, for example, representation in formulary discussions
above the local P&T committee level, strengthened formulary committee
participation by physicians, and a consistent policy of educating
veterans about therapeutic interchanges and other formulary matters.
Veteran consumers might be involved in input to the VHA, either in some
advisory capacity, as is now required for the DOD Uniform Formulary, or
as members of P&T or formulary committees.
The VHA needs better information on formulary system functions and
their effects to ensure good management of the National Formulary. The
VHA should mount studies that illuminate quality implications of the
National Formulary. Congress should support the collection of data to
improve National Formulary management and well-designed programs to
inform formulary and drug treatment performance, quality, and cost.
With respect to effects on costs, the VHA should continue to make
careful choices among drugs, based first on quality considerations, but
with an understanding of cost implications, and should negotiate the
best prices possible using the leverage of committed use and the
ability to drive market share. The VHA should collect data to perform
analyses addressing the question of offsetting expenditures and cost
In general, the IOM committee noted the extensive use of
formularies in health care systems and supported specifically the VA
National Formulary in concept and execution with some findings of
problems and recommendations for needed improvements. At the conclusion
of the study, the IOM provided some 100 copies of the report to the VA.
The IOM committee met with the VA to explain the study and was led to
believe then and subsequently that the VA was in agreement with many of
the findings and recommendations and was moving forward with a process
to implement changes consistent with the IOM report. The IOM has not
monitored this process.
Chairman Rockefeller. Dr. Miller, your presence here is
very important and we welcome you, sir.
STATEMENT OF MICHAEL D. MILLER, M.D., CONSULTANT TO THE
PHARMACEUTICAL RESEARCH AND MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION (PhRMA)
Dr. Miller. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I won't take your last
statement to mean I can take 20 minutes.
Mr. Chairman, I am honored to be here today to discuss the
VA's management of pharmaceuticals and the IOM's and GAO's
studies on this issue. I am currently a health policy and
communications analyst, educator, and consultant and I work on
issues related to the quality of health care and the
development of new medical treatments. I have spent
considerable time in the past examining the VA's national
formulary policies and am currently a consultant for PhRMA, but
I want to make it clear the views I am expressing today are my
There are three key points I would like to make. First,
Chairman Rockefeller. Now, I have got to understand this.
You are here representing PhRMA, but your views represent your
Dr. Miller. I just want to make it clear that I am a
consultant to PhRMA, in case somebody asks who my clients are.
Chairman Rockefeller. A consultant to them, I see. OK.
Dr. Miller. They are one of my major clients.
Chairman Rockefeller. Then I apologize for my question.
Dr. Miller. It is perfectly understandable.
There are three key points I would like to make. First, the
quality of care received by America's veterans should be the
focus for assessing the VA's pharmacy programs. Second,
veterans receiving care from the VHA are different from
patients receiving care from private managed care plans or
Medicaid programs. And third, although the VHA's pharmacy
practices are often compared to those used by private managed
care plans or State Medicaid programs, the VA as a Federal
agency is different and is forced to operate differently. I
will expand upon each of these areas and conclude with some
thoughts about future directions.
In discussing quality of health care, I prefer to focus in
on the individual patient level. The VA's primer on outcomes
states, ``Outcomes measures help bring the focus of the entire
health care delivery system back to the patient. Rigorous and
continuous evaluation of the process of care through outcomes
measurements analysis will ultimately improve the quality of
In addition, the document called ``The Principles of a
Sound Drug Formulary System,'' which was endorsed by the VA,
``recognizes that patient care may be compromised if its
formulary system is not optimally developed, organized, and
administered.'' These statements taken together, form a good
framework for thinking about VA's pharmaceutical policies.
The IOM and the GAO have each done a good job in analyzing
the VA's pharmacy systems. I would like to highlight some of
their findings and comment on some of the limitations of their
studies and the data that was available to them.
As a component of outcomes measurement, the IOM found that
hospitalizations for certain conditions did not change with the
implementation of restrictions for medicines for these
illnesses. However, the IOM's conclusions may be questioned, if
it is believed, as has been discussed earlier, that the VA is
seeing more and more patients who are only using the VA for
limited services, such as Medicare beneficiaries who might seek
The IOM also found some problems with VA's therapeutic
interchange practices, as Dr. Herdman just mentioned. I would
like to note that VA's technology assessment program stated
that such practices have ethical implications, and I believe
that such system-wide clinical decisionmaking is both difficult
and dangerous, particularly when the system, such as the VA, is
structurally encumbered from responding rapidly to changing
health care practices and needs. I believe this, in part,
because of the FDA's specific efforts to identify adverse drug
events from therapeutic interchanges for patients in private
managed care plans.
Further, while acknowledging that veterans are more ill
than average and have some special health needs, the VA's
dictum against newly approved medicines ignores the clinical
value of new, innovative medicines. This VA practice again
highlights my concern about making system-wide clinical
policies and decisions without the treating physician truly
being able to individualize care for a particular patient.
Incentives for a VA physician to comply with the VA's
formulary policies is another factor which may be affecting the
quality of care for veterans. Although there appears to be very
little analysis in this area and little data, because of the
centralized nature of the VA's management and the fact that VA
managers are attempting to monitor formulary compliance, as I
believe the GAO commented upon in their study, there should be
concerns about what incentives and disincentives VA physicians
are facing in providing pharmaceutical care to veterans.
Several surveys have also been conducted to assess the
quality of the VA's pharmaceutical management systems. One
study done by Yankelovich captured somewhat, the GAO, I think,
used the term ``experiential data'' on patient outcomes, and
they found that 23 percent of 418 VA physicians surveyed
personally had had a patient that had experienced a negative
outcome because of problems accessing medicines within the VA
system. I find this to be of concern, particularly when it's
combined with the IOM's finding that the VA patient safety
event registry did ``not appear to be a reliable source for
identifying adverse drug events.''
Another worrisome finding is the VA's collection and
analysis of data, as was discussed earlier, to assess outcomes
concerning its national formulary system have been insufficient
and their oversight in the area has not been comprehensive, nor
integrated with other aspects of quality monitoring
improvement. This contrasts with the VA's data showing
utilization changes and cost savings. It is my belief that this
difference in data collection reflects prioritizations within
the VA management. Overall, the VA's pharmaceutical management
practices could be viewed as a large experiment where only a
few of the possible effects were chosen for monitoring and
Because the VA is often compared to the private sector, it
is important to appreciate differences between veterans
obtaining care in VA facilities and patients in private health
plans. Basically, this comes down to two areas. The veterans
receiving care at the VA are more ill than average, with
greater needs for substance abuse and mental health treatments,
and they need specialized services that the private health
plans haven't generally developed in their systems.
And second, because many veterans lack financial means,
they do not have the other choices of health care that private
patients have. The competitive model of private health plans
includes financial-based incentives to use certain types of
care, and this is not applicable to the VA.
Just as the veteran patients are different than private
sector patients, the veterans' health system operates very
differently from private health plans. One striking example of
these differences is the VA's ability to have pharmacists
enforce therapeutic substitution policies and give veterans a
medicine different from what their treating physician
prescribed. Such practices, to the extent they are used to
implement the VA's pharmaceutical policies, are very troubling.
In fact, the VA-endorsed Principles of a Sound Drug Formulary
System specifically states, ``Therapeutic substitution, the
dispensing of therapeutic alternatives without the prescriber's
approval, is illegal and should not be allowed.''
In conclusion, the veterans' health system is different
from other private health systems in its financing and
structure and it is important----
Chairman Rockefeller. Could you go over that last statement
just again? I am just grateful there is not a stenographer
handling your testimony, because you are moving quite quickly--
Dr. Miller. I am sorry.
Chairman Rockefeller. It is fine. We can all understand it.
But could you go over the last one again----
Dr. Miller. About the VA pharmacists dispensing a different
Chairman Rockefeller. Yes, that it should not be allowed,
Dr. Miller. Basically, this relates to State practice of
pharmacy laws, and the VA as a Federal program is not subject
to those State laws. That is my understanding of the operation
of the system. There has been some documentation at local VA
facilities where the directors have been----
Chairman Rockefeller. But I thought you were saying
something to the effect that--I had the feeling it was getting
into patent extension or something of that sort, that you
should not be able to do substitutes----
Dr. Miller. The quote from ``The Principles of a Sound Drug
Formulary System,'' which is a document endorsed by the VA as
well as several other national organizations, like the AMA,
Association of Health System Pharmacists, and I can read the
quote again. It says, ``Therapeutic substitution, the
dispension of therapeutic alternatives without the prescriber's
approval, is illegal and should not be allowed,'' and that
illegality refers to private sector pharmacies. The VA is not
subject to those State laws because it is a Federal system.
Chairman Rockefeller. That is interesting. I will get some
comments on that afterwards. Excuse me. Go ahead.
Dr. Miller. In conclusion, the VA is different than a
private health system. It is an important component of the U.S.
health system, filling a unique role in providing health care
service to American veterans and training American physicians
to practice medicine in a manner which many may carry outside
of the VA system. Over 3 million veterans receive care from the
VA, but these veterans are often more vulnerable, both
clinically and economically than patients in private health
plans who are protected by their ability to choose other health
providers or treatments not preferred or offered by their
To truly evaluate the effectiveness of a health system, and
any proposed changes, clinical outcomes need to be the gold
standard that are looked at. In evaluating health systems, it
is important to look at four key areas: one, how access is
provided for the health care services and the effects access
limitations have on outcomes; two, how innovations are adopted
by the system to improve outcomes; three, how many proposed
changes fit into the vision of that system for the future; and
four, what is the plan for getting from where the system is
today to that envisioned in the future?
Recognizing the unique characteristics and limitations of
the veterans' health system, all these principles can be
applied to it and its management of pharmaceutical access and
I thank the chair and welcome any comments. I apologize for
Chairman Rockefeller. No, it is OK. Thank you, Dr. Miller.
[The prepared statement of Dr. Miller follows:]
Prepared Statement of Michael D. Miller, M.D., Consultant to the
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA)
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee. I am honored and pleased to
be here today to share some of my thoughts on the Veterans Health
Administration's (VHA) management of pharmaceuticals and on the
findings of the Institute of Medicines' \1\ and the General Accounting
Office's \2\ studies of this issue. For the last year and a half I have
been a health policy and communications Analyst, Consultant and
Educator focusing on issues and projects related to the quality of
healthcare and the development and use of new medical treatments. In
this capacity I have given talks and participated in over 40 meetings
across the country discussing these topics. I am currently a Consultant
to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufactures of America, the
Association representing America's Research-based Pharmaceutical
companies, but I want to make clear that the views I am expressing are
\1\ ``Description and Analysis of the VA National Formulary,'' IOM
\2\ ``VA Drug Formulary: Better Oversight Is Required, but Veterans
Are Getting Needed Drugs,'' GAO-01-183
It is important to remember that the current focus on the VA's
National Formulary is due to the clinical and economic value of modern
pharmaceuticals. Over the past 10-20 years pharmaceuticals have become
a more important part of healthcare, and patients and providers are
increasingly looking to pharmaceuticals as their preferred treatment
option. Due to their clinical importance and value, providers and
consumers of healthcare are also seeing a growing percentage of their
healthcare spending going to pharmaceuticals. In sum, the
pharmaceutical industry has succeeded in bringing many better treatment
options to the bedside and the pharmacy shelf, but with this success
has come increased scrutiny from those paying for healthcare services.
The VHA is no exception, and as it has been reorganizing the Veterans
Healthcare System, it has had to confront pharmaceutical management
issues. Although much of the reorganization has been positive, such as
expanding outpatient clinics, I believe that some of the clinical
aspects of their management of pharmaceutical care have been
problematic for veterans and the quality of their healthcare.\3\
\3\ Part of the challenge of modern healthcare is integrating the
management of all components and options of the healthcare delivery
system. It is easier to manage each component--and its budget--
separately, but such an approach creates barriers for capitalizing on
the benefits of new innovations, both in technology such as
pharmaceuticals, and in processes for delivering care, such as disease
There are three key points I would like to make: First, the quality
of care received by America's veterans should be the focus for
assessing the VHA's pharmacy programs. Second, veterans receiving care
from the Veterans Healthcare System have significant differences from
patients receiving care through private managed care plans or state
Medicaid programs. Third, although the VHA's formulary and pharmacy
practices are often compared to those employed by private managed care
plans and state Medicaid agencies, the VHA, as a government program
must operate differently, and it is limited in some of the ways it can
deliver and manage the healthcare it delivers to veterans. I will
expand upon each of these areas, and conclude with some thoughts about
quality of healthcare for veterans
Quality in healthcare is often defined by different individuals and
experts in a variety of ways. For example, the IOM asserted that
healthcare quality ``can be assessed by examining the structure,
process, and outcomes of delivery of care.'' Another frequently used
measure of quality is patients' satisfaction, which is often measured
as waiting times for both an appointment and within the healthcare
\4\ In July 1999 Testimony, the GAO found that ``Currently, the VA
does not track information on primary and specialty clinic appointment
waiting times.'' GAO/T-HEHS-99-158
The definitions I prefer, focus on the individual patient. One such
definition is, ``The right treatment for the right patient at the right
time.'' Assessing quality at the individual patient level is
encompassed through outcome measurements. As the VA's Primer on
Outcomes states, ``Outcomes measurements help bring the focus of the
entire health care delivery system back to the patient. Rigorous and
continuous evaluation of the processes of care through outcomes
measurement and analysis will ultimately improve the quality of care.''
\5\ The ``Principles of a Sound Drug Formulary System,'' which was
endorsed by the VA, ``recognizes that patient care may be compromised
if its formulary system is not optimally developed, organized and
\5\ ``Using Outcomes to Improve Health Care Decision Making,''
Zimmerman, Daley, Kizer and Feussner, VA and AHSR, 1997
\6\ October 2000, ``Principles of a Sound Drug Formulary System,''
was endorsed by the VA's PBM, the AMA, the Academy of Managed Care
Pharmacy, the Alliance of Community Health Plans, the American Society
of Health-System Pharmacists, the National Business Coalition on
Health, and the U.S. Pharmacopeia.
As quality can be defined in many different ways, can it can also
be analyzed in many different ways. The IOM and the GAO have each
reviewed and analyzed the VHA's pharmacy system, and I would like to
highlight some of their findings and comment upon some of the
limitations of their studies. I will make these comments about the
studies' findings and limitations not to criticize in any way the good
work of the IOM or the GAO, but rather as a starting point to suggest
approaches and promote thinking about future analyses of the Veterans
Health System and VHA management because I strongly believe it is
important to understand what we know--and what we don't know--in order
to plan for future improvements.
One of the worrisome findings in both the IOM and GAO studies is
that the VA's activities in collecting and analyzing data to assess
outcomes concerning its National Formulary system have been
insufficient or lacking, and thus overall VHA's oversight in this area
has not been comprehensive nor integrated with other aspects of quality
monitoring and improvement. This contrasts both with the VA's Outcomes
Primer statement that, ``Reliable data collection is necessary to
develop strong evidence for health care decision making,'' and the VA's
data showing utilization changes and cost savings. Although the IOM did
try and assess the effects of these utilization changes on veterans'
healthcare, they were restricted in their ability to do so by the VA's
data limitations and because they were conducting a retrospective
analysis rather than being able to evaluate the effects prospectively
during implementation of the formulary policies.
The IOM did find that hospitalizations for certain heart and ulcer
conditions did not change with the implementation of restrictions for
medicines for these illnesses. Such a finding is in some ways
reassuring that the outcomes for patients with these conditions did not
change. However, this conclusion could be questioned because, in part,
it assumes that the percentage of veterans using the Veterans
Healthcare System who have outside insurance coverage, such has
Medicare, has not changed and similarly that veterans use of non-VA
facilities has not changed. These assumptions, and hence the IOM's
conclusion may be questioned in light of the GAO's 1999 finding that
``several [VISN] directors commented that they are experiencing
increased demand by veterans whose primary care is provided elsewhere
but who obtain from the VA specialty care and services not covered by
private insurance or Medicare.'' \7\ \8\
\8\ It could be argued that if VA patients' use of private sector
health facilities has not changed then the conclusion would be valid.
However, the availability of emergency care differs between the VA and
private health facilities, and thus if there were an increase in
outside insurance coverage and acute adverse events, then the
utilization of these non-VA health services might be expected to
In addition, measuring inpatient admissions as a surrogate for
outcomes would also miss adverse events treated in VA outpatient
clinics, as well as in private outpatient settings. Given that the IOM
also found that the VA's Patient Safety Event Registry ``does not
appear to be a reliable source for identifying ADEs (Adverse Drug
Events),'' this could be another factor complicating the evaluation of
the effects of the VA's National Formulary and pharmacy policies on the
quality of healthcare for veterans.\9\
\9\ The VA endorsed, ``Principles of a Sound Drug Formulary
System,'' calls for a formulary system that ``Provides for the
monitoring, reporting, and analysis of adverse results of drug therapy
(e.g., adverse drug reactions, medication errors) to continuously
improve quality of care.
Therefore, without measuring the utilization of healthcare services
for individual patients both within and outside of the Veterans
Healthcare System, it is uncertain how total utilization and outcomes
have been affected by the VA's formulary policies.
The IOM also found some problems with the VA's non-formulary
exceptions process and therapeutic interchange practices. Both of these
policies affect the individualized nature of clinical medicine.
Although we would all like to believe that the practice of medicine is
much more a science than an art, individual patient variation still
plays a significant part in clinical care, and as the VA's Technical
Advisory Panel concluded, population-based approaches to healthcare
decision making and delivery, such as practiced by managed care plans
and being adopted by the VA, have ethical implications.\10\ The
changing nature of medicine--with new knowledge replacing old dictums--
also makes such system-wide clinical decision-making both difficult and
dangerous, particularly when the system is structurally encumbered from
\10\ The VA's Technology Assessment Program 1996 report on issues
related to transferring managed care principles to the VA stated that
the following managed care principles were used by private health plans
that would be appropriate ``models to the VA:
care should be integrated throughout disease processes;
resource use should be managed through the management of
quality, i.e., by the management of variation;
incentives should be aligned to the well-being of the
enrolled population, not to the punishment of physicians for individual
the ethical impact of a population-based approach to
health care decision making and delivery should be addressed through
Another challenge the VHA faces in making decisions about
therapeutic interchange is the limitations of the data available to
them about individual patient variability between medicines. The FDA
only achieves such conclusion about the interchangeability of medicines
for generic versions of already approved medicines based upon
bioequivalency data--not for different chemical compounds. In fact, the
FDA was so concerned about adverse drug events (ADEs) from therapeutic
interchange in private health systems, that it specifically launched an
effort looking for such ADEs through its MedWatch program.\11\
\11\ System-wide therapeutic interchange policies are an example of
a population-based approach to healthcare decision-making and delivery.
Several other factors complicate the reliability of conclusions
made when analyzing data about any group of medicines in a class. These
The different natures of the populations used in the
The reporting of group averages can often be misleading
when trying to make efficacy comparisons; \12\ and
\12\ For example, if two medicines have both been shown to be
effective in treating a disease in 70% of patients in clinical trials,
this may--or may not--mean they are comparable because each medicine
may have a 70% likelihood of being effective in any given individual,
but it's success or failure in an individual may not predict likelihood
of the success of failure of the other medicine in the same patient.
This is the situation for the SSRI class of medicines used to treat
If the study populations are less ill than the population
which the conclusions are going to be applied to, then because of the
greater disease burden in the real-life population, such as that seen
at VA health centers, there is a greater possibility of adverse events
due to the higher rates of concurrent diseases and medicines used.
These factors all contribute to the different results produced in a
clinical trial, where conditions and patients are closely monitored,
versus what happens in real world clinical practice.\13\ The VA uses
this argument, along with the veterans being more ill than average
patients, for not making medicines readily available once they are
approved by the FDA. Thus, the VA argues that the data on newly
approved drugs is not sufficient to safely provide them to veterans,
but it uses similar data to decide which medicines are therapeutically
interchangeable. Further, acknowledging that veterans are more ill than
average, and some have specialized health needs, the VA's dictum
against newly approved medicines ignores the clinical value of
innovative medicines. This knotted logic illustrates my concern about
making system-wide clinical policies and decisions without the treating
physician being able to truly individualize care for a particular
patient.\14\ The incentives for VHA physicians to comply with the VHA's
formulary policies and directives are another factor concerning the
effects the VHA's formulary system has on the quality of care for
veterans. Although there appears to be little analysis in this area,
the centralized nature of the VHA's management, and because VHA local
and regional managers are attempting to monitor formulary compliance,
raises questions about what incentives and disincentives VHA physicians
are facing in providing care to veterans.
\13\ The VA's Outcomes Primer (1997) states, ``clinical
epidemiologists have sought to establish ``real world'' effectiveness
of diagnostic tests and treatments. These researchers have been
concerned not only with the ``intervening'' variables that characterize
disease status, but with the ``patient outcome'' variables that
characterize patients' health status.''
\14\ The VA asserts that individual physicians can obtain off-
formulary medicines for their patients when need, but the GAO in their
January 2001 study found that 60% of the providers they surveyed said
the average waiting time for non-formulary approvals was 9 days. GAO/
How concerned should we be about these pharmaceutical limitations
and practices for the individual veteran receiving healthcare from the
VHA? The GAO found that 10 percent of prescriptions were for drugs in
the VA's closed classes.\15\ \16\ How, many veterans this affects are
unknown. The best way to determine this would be through a
comprehensive, patient-based analysis of the utilization of the
restricted drugs and classes in the VA's National Formulary.
\15\ GAO December 1999 Study, ``VA Health Care: VA's Management of
Drugs on Its National Formulary.''
\16\ A 1998 analysis comparing IMS data and the medicines excluded
from the VA's closed classes found that the VA's National Formulary
excluded 12 of the 100 medicines most frequently prescribed in the
private market. Since the list of 100 medicines included generic
medicines, the percentage of excluded innovative medicines was greater
than 12%, i.e. closer to 25%.
Several surveys have also been conducted to assess the quality of
the VHA's pharmaceutical management systems. Each of these surveys has
its methodological problems and limitations. The IOM identified some of
these in its review of both VHA's written survey and the telephone
survey conducted by Yankelovich Partners. The GAO also conducted a mail
survey for their January 2001 Report.\17\ The Yankelovich survey
captured some ``experiential data''--to borrow a term from the GAO's
lexicon--on actual patient outcomes: Their survey found that 23% of the
418 VA physicians surveyed had personally had a patient experience a
negative outcome because of problems accessing medicines within the
VA's National Formulary system. I find this to be of concern,
particularly when it is combined with the IOM's finding that as of the
time of their survey, the VA's Patient Safety Event Registry did ``not
appear to be a reliable source for identifying ADEs.''
\17\ Of concern in the GAO survey was that they received responses
from ``many prescribers'' who wrote only a few prescriptions, and thus
the average findings may not reflect the experience of active
These conclusions are consistent with the GAO's and the IOM's
findings that the VA's National Formulary system has been implemented
without sufficient data collection and quality focused oversight tools
in place. While the GAO in part focused on the problems the VA has in
ensuring compliance with the National Formulary policies and
``standardizations,'' I am much more concerned about the lack of data
and oversight related to quality of care and outcomes measurements. The
VA's National Formulary could be viewed as a large experiment where
only a few of the possible effects were chosen for monitoring and
analysis. Specifically, the VA has closely monitored and reported
effects on utilization and costs, but the effects on quality of patient
care--albeit much more difficult parameters to measure--have not
received the nearly the same attention by the VA. (These same data
inadequacies may also exist within many private health plans, and in
the following sections I will discuss the implications of the
differences between the VHA and other health systems.)
The bottom line is that unless outcomes and adverse events are
examined, changes can't be made to improve outcomes and avoid adverse
events, and the effects on quality brought about by changes to the
systems and processes will not be known until secondary and more
significant adverse events become apparent. This is analogous to
shaving your face in a fogged-up mirror. You may know that the blade
needs to changed because you face feels rough or you find blood on your
fingers, but wiping off the mirror and looking at what you are doing is
certainly a both a quicker and cheaper solution in the long run because
preventing adverse outcomes is better than treating them.
differences between va patients and patients in private health plan or
Although private health plans are often criticized for having the
same lack of data collection priorities as described above, it is
important to appreciate the differences between veterans obtaining care
at VHA facilities and patients obtaining care at private health plans,
and the implications this can have for the quality of healthcare
Not only is the VA caring ``for a population that is
disproportionately elderly and ill,'' \18\ \19\ \20\ but many also lack
the economic resources to choose another option for their healthcare,
i.e. they can't vote with their feet to see another doctor, and they
can't afford to pay out-of-pocket for a medicine the VA won't provide
for them. These differences between the Veterans Healthcare System's
patient population and the population cared for through private health
plans have significant implications for comparing their management
\18\ IOM Study--characterization in Committee Chair's Preface.
\19\ 9 million Veterans are Medicare beneficiaries.
\20\ Estimates of Hepatitis C prevalence among veterans were put at
8-10 percent in 1999, (GAO/T-HEHS-99-158), and over 670,000 Veterans
treated by the VA have mental illnesses, and 366,000 have a substance
abuse diagnosis. (VA Testimony, 6/20/2001)
\21\ Similarly, VA patients are very different from those covered
by Medicaid. Simply put, the Medicaid patients are younger women and
children, or elderly in long-term care settings, whereas the VA
patients are predominantly male and elderly.
Of course, an exception to statement that the veterans using the
Veterans Healthcare System lack economic resources would be those
veterans who are also Medicare beneficiaries, and are accessing the VA
for benefits Medicare does not currently provide, i.e. pharmaceuticals.
Within this group of patients, there are certainly individuals who can
afford to purchase medicines not provided by the VA. This leads to a
troubling practice that I call ``healthcare disintegration.'' By that I
mean, the patient's team of healthcare providers is divided so not only
may the patient be receiving prescriptions from more than one
physician, but they are almost certainly having prescriptions filled by
more than one pharmacist--who may not know what other medicines the
other patient is taking.\22\
\22\ I recently encountered this situation with a family friend
with diabetes and cardiovascular conditions. The VA provides him with
some of his medicines, and he obtains those the VA will not provide
from the local pharmacy. Neither pharmacist knows or has records about
all the medicines he is taking. This not only complicates his
healthcare, potentially putting him at increased risk for drug-drug
interactions, but it also undermines any analysis based solely upon VA
data. This type of ``disintegration'' of the patient's healthcare team
is also one of the hidden hazards of purchasing medicine via the
Internet or from foreign sources.
The significance of these clinical and economic factors is that
systems for delivering healthcare, and of financial incentives for
patients and providers, cannot always be readily transferred from the
one system to another. In the clinical arena, delivery systems
developed for private sector health systems may not fit the needs of
patient populations with greater needs for mental health and substance
abuse treatments. In the economic area, private health plans use
financial incentives for patients and providers to use certain
medicines, and the structure of these incentives have been evolving
very rapidly over the last decade, from closed formularies to three
tiered, to now four or even five tiered formularies. One interesting
private sector health plan utilizes a program called 10-50-1000 to
create financial incentives for patients and their physicians: A $10
co-payment for preferred brand medicines, a 50% co-payment for a non-
preferred brand medicine, and an annual $1000 out-of-pocket cap.
Another interesting facet of some private health plan formularies
involves allowing a patient to pay a lower tier's co-payment amount if
for medical reasons they cannot take the preferred medicine in that
therapeutic class. The decision about this lower co-payment is made
within the health plans local administration. Innovations like this are
not possible within the Veterans Healthcare System because of its
centralized decision-making structure and standardization, and the
economic limitations of many VA patients.
limitations of the va health system as a government program
Although significant restructuring of the VA's Health System has
occurred in the past several years, it still differs from private
health systems in many ways, including:
Limited flexibility in managing its annual budget because
such a great percentage of it is committed to relatively fixed cost
areas such as personnel and facilities; \23\
\23\ ``VA's massive, aged infrastructure could be the biggest
obstacle confronting VA's ongoing transformation efforts.'' GAO/T-HEHS-
Limited flexibility in hiring or firing of personnel, and
buying or selling buildings or land;
Access to government monsopony benefits such as the
Federal Supply Schedule prices for pharmaceuticals which already
provides the VHA with procurement prices lower than those available in
the private market;
Regulatory procedures must frequently be followed to
change policies and practices; and
Limited ability to change the structure of benefits.
In constant, private sector health plans are constrained by the
terms of the contracts they have with patients, employers, and
providers, as well as by some state and Federal laws. Specifically, as
a Federal program, state laws do not bind the VA and thus it can bestow
privileges on health care providers beyond what state laws would allow.
For example, the VA is able to allow VA pharmacists to enforce
therapeutic substitution policies, and give the veteran a medicine
different from what their treating physician prescribed without a new
prescription order from a physician. The VA endorsed ``Principles of a
Sound Drug Formulary System'' specifically states that ``Therapeutic
substitution, the dispending of therapeutic alternatives without the
prescriber's approval, is illegal and should not be allowed.''
Overall, private health plans have much greater flexibility than
the VA, and each faces different directives and forces when working to
respond to the challenges of a changing healthcare environment and
evolutions in biomedical science. For example, because so much of the
VA's budget it consumed by relatively fixed cost areas, in times of
financial constraints, savings programs must be directed towards budget
items that are not fixed, e.g. pharmaceuticals.\24\
\24\ Pharmaceuticals represent the single largest component of
these ``unfixed'' expenditures--even though within the VHA's overall
spending, pharmaceuticals are very small compared to facilities and
personnel costs. An analysis I conducted several years ago showed that
65% of the VA's health budget was spent on inflexible
expenditures such as personnel and facilities, while about 9% was spent
These budgetary constraints drive the VA's decision making into
silo or sector thinking and management. Private health plans, because
of their greater structural and financial flexibility, can more easily
integrate the management of all components of their health delivery
system, and thus explicitly attempt to initiate practices which will
produce cost savings in one area while knowingly increase costs in
another area. For example, a large health plan instituted a disease
management program for patients with congestive heart failure. After
one year's experience with over 1,900 patients, they found they for
these patients, hospitalization costs had decreased 78%, outpatient
pharmaceutical spending had increased 60% ($243,000), with the net
savings in caring for these patients totaling $9.3 million.\25\ In
addition, this intervention produced better clinical outcomes, with the
patients better able to perform activities of daily living, and their
mortality rate was only 10 percent compared to an expected 25 percent.
This type of integrated management is difficult for the VA because of
it's data limitations, and so much of its spending is for fixed cost
items and thus it cannot realize savings from such utilization
\25\ 1996 Year-Long Study of 1,915 Humana Members reported in
``Managed Care Pharmacy,'' April 1998, pp 42-44
\26\ In 1999, the GAO stated ``VA's data systems do not fully track
treatment specific costs, making it difficult for VA to determine the
exact cost savings it could realize by discontinuing care to some
veterans or reducing benefits.'' GAO/T-HEHS-99-158
Private health plans also have much greater flexibility in their
arrangements with providers and with their patients. For example,
health plans can relatively quickly, reorganize contracts with
providers, reprioritize co-payments and deductibles payments due from
patients, sell off assets and even change premium structures. Thus,
they have much greater flexibility in managing financial constraints,
and responding to the changing nature of clinical medicine by changing
benefit designs and their structure for delivering healthcare.
The Veterans Healthcare System is a unique component of the US
healthcare system, serving an important role in providing healthcare
services to America's veterans. Because of it's unique character,
comparing the Veterans Healthcare System to other health systems must
include a recognition of the differences between the VA and non-
governmental providers and financers of health care--both here in the
US and in other countries.
While the VHA provides healthcare to over 3 million US veterans
each year, these individuals are not a representative sample of
Americans, but rather they are predominantly male, older, have more
healthcare problems and needs than average, and have lower financial
resources. These last two points, while well known to VA observers, are
important because together they mean that many of these patients are
more vulnerable both clinically and economically than patients in
private health plans who are protected by their ability to choose other
health plans, or treatments not preferred nor offered by their health
To truly evaluate the effectiveness of a health system, and any
changes being made to ``improve'' it, clinical outcomes are the gold
standard. Recognizing the difficulty in measuring and analyzing data
for clinical outcomes does not change their importance. Rather, it
highlights the importance of examining whatever analyses are available,
and asking what are the limitations of these analyses and what insight
can they provide into the effects changes to any component of the
health system may be having for actual clinical outcomes.
Overall, because outcomes are the key goal, in evaluating any
health system it is important to look at four key areas of structure
and planning: 1. How access is provided to health care services and the
effect access limits and practices have on clinical outcomes; 2. How
innovations are adopted by the system to improve outcomes; 3. In
planning for future improvements to a health system, what should this
future looks like, i.e., what is the vision; and 4. What is the plan
for getting to that envisioned future from where the system exists
today. Recognizing its unique characteristics and limitations, all
these principles can be applied to the Veterans Healthcare System, and
its management of pharmaceutical access and delivery.
Chairman Rockefeller. Is Dr. Garthwaite still here?
Mr. Ogden. No, Dr. Garthwaite left, but I am here.
Chairman Rockefeller. You are here, that is right. John,
you are here. The reason I wanted to know is because I think
you used the percentage 23 percent----
Dr. Miller. That was in the Yankelovich survey.
Chairman Rockefeller. Yes, and that there was a bad result
or a bad outcome or a less than desirable outcome. I have heard
this used so much over the last number of years, and yet I have
actually never heard it defined very well. Dr. Herdman, I might
call on you and you can give us that, and you, John Ogden, if
you care to.
How does that break down? What is the meaning of either an
overlapping or conflicting prescription, as opposed to simply
taking the wrong ones, as opposed to computer mistakes, as
opposed to the confusion at whatever magnitude? Let us take the
23 percent for the moment, regardless of whether it is 13 or
23, and let us take it and break it down as much as you can, as
you understand the problem of misuse of prescriptions or
overuse of prescriptions or conflicting use of prescriptions,
or whatever. I do not ask for absolute accuracy. I ask for a
sense, because I have heard this used so often and I have never
heard it broken down properly.
Dr. Miller. Mr. Chairman, would you like me to respond and
Chairman Rockefeller. That would be fine, too.
Dr. Miller. The number came out of a Yankelovich phone
survey of VA physicians and reflected those physicians feeling
that their patient had a negative outcome because of some
Chairman Rockefeller. No, I understand what was positive.
What I am trying to get is underneath that, what the
explanation might be.
Dr. Miller. What those adverse events were?
Chairman Rockefeller. What is it they observe? Where do
they think these mistakes are made, et cetera?
Dr. Herdman. The Yankelovich survey, if I could, Senator,
is a survey basically of physicians' attitudes about a national
formulary and what they are saying is they don't like it or
they have trouble getting medications they need or their
patients are suffering bad outcomes because the formulary----
Chairman Rockefeller. All of which I understand, Dr.
Herdman. I am just trying to get a sense of how, in a rough
way, does that break down episodically? What are the causes of
Dr. Herdman. I don't think that the survey helps you find
that. If you are thinking----
Chairman Rockefeller. I know that. I understand that. I am
trying to just----
Dr. Herdman. I am not sure what the percent in various
categories is--maybe John Ogden can help us with this--is of
the various problems that you have in the pharmacy benefit or
prescribing, whether the adverse events are allergies or the
patient took the wrong dose or the physician prescribed the
wrong dose or the pharmacist dispensed the wrong dose or there
was an interaction between the drug that the patient was
already on and the new drug that was prescribed. Those are an
array of problems which can occur in a drug treatment
situation. There are reports in literature about how those
things, the numbers of those and the percents in the various
categories, if that is what you are looking for.
Dr. Miller. I think the VA has done a good job in reporting
about their use of bar code and other things to prevent
dispensing of the wrong medicine to the patient, which is one
area where you can have a medical error resulting in an adverse
The other kinds of things that can happen, as Dr. Herdman
said, you can get drug-drug interactions, and that brings up
one concern that I have and it relates to Medicare, is some
veterans may be getting some of their medicines from the VA and
some of their medicines outside of the VA.
Chairman Rockefeller. That is what I am trying to get at.
John, do you have some----
Mr. Ogden. I don't have any numbers on that, but I would
say that is an accurate statement.
Chairman Rockefeller. Do you have anything more you could
add, into a microphone?
Mr. Ogden. On that issue, or on the whole issue----
Chairman Rockefeller. On that issue.
Mr. Ogden. I would say that you probably have veterans who
have those eligibilities, those dual or triple eligibilities,
that do go to the different systems, and because the
informatics capability external to VA, feeding into VA or
interacting with VA, doesn't exist, that there is a possibility
of drug-drug interactions in that situation.
Chairman Rockefeller. And would that be because they would
fear that they would run out, let us say, of a prescription and
they wanted to make sure that they had enough for several
months? Would that be----
Mr. Ogden. I don't believe that----
Chairman Rockefeller. Why would they----
Mr. Ogden. Why they would shop, if you will?
Chairman Rockefeller. Yes.
Mr. Ogden. It could be convenience. It could be access, you
know, where they happen to be at a point in time geographically
in the country.
Chairman Rockefeller. What percentage of bad outcomes can
result in very serious health damage?
Mr. Ogden. Well, I am not a physician----
Chairman Rockefeller. In general terms. In general terms.
Mr. Ogden. I don't think I am the person to answer that
question, but drugs, in this country, drugs approved by the
Food and Drug Administration are generally safe when taken as
Chairman Rockefeller. As prescribed.
Mr. Ogden. How many adverse events occur because patients
take drugs that----
Chairman Rockefeller. Or take them on their own. I mean,
there is the classic situation, and whenever I think about
this, I think of retired coal miners, who average 78 to 80
years old. You open up the medicine cabinet in their bathrooms
and there may be 12 to 15 bottles of pills and they may take as
many as 12 different kinds of pills a day. So inherent in
that--and it is not a far reach from there to a veteran--is a
tremendous capacity for confusion, the drug already having been
dispensed, the little paper that comes in the bag that says
what you can't mix it with, et cetera, already having been long
since deposited in the trash can, you know, where these
confusions come from.
Mr. Ogden. Well, you absolutely make an excellent point.
When you think about the VA, and Dr. Miller described the VA as
being different, if, in our case, the veteran accesses the VA
health care system for most of their medical care needs, which
subsequently would include pharmaceuticals, those
pharmaceuticals are in the VA automated medical records, so
that screening is taking place.
Chairman Rockefeller. Automatically?
Mr. Ogden. Automatically. In the private sector, if you and
I go down to the local drug store and present our prescription,
they are screening your prescription, as well, but their screen
only includes those prescriptions that you presented and
subsequently received from that drug store. If a patient also
utilizes another drug store 3 miles away or 5 miles away, that
screening doesn't take place.
So it does lend some credence to interconnectivity, and I
appreciate the issue of patient confidentiality, but from a
patient safety and quality of care perspective, there is an
absolute need for patients, for people like you and I and our
families, to choose a system, choose a pharmacy and stick with
that pharmacy, because you can be reasonably assured, then,
that those cross-checks are taking place, whether it is Giant,
whether it is CVS, whether it is XYZ pharmacy.
Dr. Herdman. There are, Senator, an enormous number of
adverse drug events in this country every year for all the
various reasons we have been talking about. It seems to me,
that there is information to get at the numbers and reasons for
those, the errors--I think there is a section in the IOM
report, ``To Err is Human,'' a medical errors report. I am not
sure staff has seen that. I would be happy to send you a copy,
which describes some of this and ways in which people can avoid
those drug errors.
Ms. Bascetta. Mr. Chairman, I would----
Chairman Rockefeller. You see, that is precisely the point.
It is a syndrome we get into here in Washington, it seems to
me, that we discuss things as we think they should be, and,
indeed, as they often should be. But our discussing of it, even
passing rules, regulations, or laws about it, doesn't
necessarily project it any further than Bethesda, MD. I mean,
it is of enormous concern to me.
The point that you made--and I recognize this is off-point
in some respects, but it is on-point as far as I am concerned--
that if you decide to go to a certain pharmacy, and I will just
use my own example. I had three root canals taken on the same
tooth. I was not particularly grateful for that experience, but
I had to deal with it, and each time, I had to go get
penicillin in case there was inflammation. In one case, I was
going off to Japan, that kind of thing.
And so I was, in effect--I have no particular allegiance to
a pharmacy, and so it was almost a question of where I chose to
stop. And in each case, where I chose to stop, I had to wait an
hour because they tended to be large pharmacies with lots of
people waiting, or in some cases large pharmacies with nobody
waiting, in which case the 1-hour totally perplexed me----
Chairman Rockefeller [continuing]. But the point was, I
waited an hour, which I really don't have, although I am not
important in that respect, but I did it. Well, that could have
driven me to another pharmacy, couldn't it, where they would
not have had any record of these previous root canals,
whatever, and it is a very important point, and it is all
assuming consumer sophistication. I think that my understanding
of those things might be a little bit better, let us say, than
some other people, so this is a huge problem.
As I said, the suggestions that you have are exactly right.
There is a wonderful article in today's Post by Dean Ornish,
whom I happen to admire very much, about pace of life and what
you eat and all the rest of it, and I am going to read it when
I get home tonight. I do not know how many other people are
going to read it. So what is written doesn't necessarily mean
what people do. That is my point.
Dr. Miller. Can I make one further comment, Senator?
Chairman Rockefeller. Yes.
Dr. Miller. The problem is only going to get worse as we
develop more treatments to treat chronic diseases as our
population ages, because the more medicines somebody takes, the
more concomitant illnesses they have, the potential for drug-
drug interactions or just an adverse event from a single drug
because of other illnesses increases.
So, as Dr. Herdman said, to err is human. I think we need
to take the perspective that health care is, by nature, a
little bit messy. It is still as much art as it is science,
which adds the complexity of trying to figure out what is the
best thing to do for individual patients. However, part of the
problem I have, and I understand the GAO's perspective, and the
work it does, but standardization and uniformity are not always
the best thing for quality of care. They may have value in a
bureaucracy, in administration of things, but health care is a
little different than just producing something where everything
is the same, whether it is cars or pens or water glasses.
Ms. Bascetta. Mr. Chairman?
Chairman Rockefeller. You have your chance. Yes?
Ms. Bascetta. As long as standardization is clinically
driven, and I think John Ogden would agree that that is, in
fact, the essential underpinnings of the VA's decisions, then
it is appropriate. Of course, the other piece of that is you
have to balance local needs and individual needs. That is why
getting better oversight and control of the non-formulary
process is so important to us.
I would like to comment about the IOM study. I think that
Mr. Herdman is exactly correct that there is data in there,
although I think it is more heavily looking at inpatient
problems with medication errors and adverse events. It won't
help us today, but for the future, VA has a patient safety
initiative that is quite extensive, and I know that what they
are doing is they are collecting data on actual harm that has
been done as a result of an error, or potential harm. Of
course, there is much more in the potential harm area,
fortunately, than in the actual harm area.
They are finding that so many reports are coming in on
medication errors that, in fact, rather than doing an analysis
of each of those incidents, they are aggregating them and they
are going to be looking at what the causes of those errors are.
So I would hope that when they have had more experience with
that data base and with that initiative, we will learn
something that will be useful.
Chairman Rockefeller. OK. I want to get back to basics for
a moment again with you, Ms. Bascetta, and that is that you
have looked at a lot of projects in the VA health care system.
Again, I go to this cost shifting matter that I discussed with
the earlier panel. If the price of pharmaceuticals continues to
rise, as I think we all understand it will, what do you think
will be the effect on the VA as a health care system in its
efficacy for veterans?
Ms. Bascetta. As the effect would similarly be on the
entire health care system, what happens is that if you are
going to have a fixed amount of resources to spend on health
care, if one component, in this case, drugs, rises
disproportionately, you are going to crowd out other services.
You have a couple--that is the simple answer. I mean, you have
a couple of options. You can offer a less generous benefit
package to a larger number of people or you can cut back on the
number of people that you can serve or you can look for more
Chairman Rockefeller. You see, that point has to be made
very clearly, doesn't it----
Ms. Bascetta. Yes, it does.
Chairman Rockefeller [continuing]. Because this is a
budgeted annual event, the VA health care system----
Ms. Bascetta. That is correct.
Chairman Rockefeller [continuing]. And if one thing goes
up, something else has to come down.
Ms. Bascetta. I think we have to be careful about
oversimplifying, though, in the sense that there are lots of
complicated analyses we could do to shed light on the problem.
For example, we know that the priority seven veterans are
coming in at a much higher rate than they were before
eligibility reform. We credit the IG with coming up with the
first quantitative information that supports the conventional
wisdom that, in fact, they are coming for gap coverage.
As Dr. Garthwaite said, I don't know if we can extrapolate
from VISN 8, but VA could take its PBM data base and match it
against its enrollment data base to see, in fact, what the
costs are, what the utilization costs are for pharmaceuticals
for the sevens, and they can also do it by age, to see what the
Medicare-eligible proportion of the population is that is using
those services. They might have to go into the medical records
to check if that was the sole utilization of those
beneficiaries. I am not sure.
But it would be important to get a handle on that, and part
of the reason that would be important is if sevens are, in
fact, driving up disproportionately or in an absolute sense
that proportion of the budget, then you might want to tailor a
solution to that part of the population. You might want to see
if you can raise copays there more if, in fact, the sevens have
resources. There are other options that might become more
evident as you further analyze the problem.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you.
Dr. Herdman, I want to ask you this. You mentioned in your
testimony that the Medicaid formularies are more open, as you
put it, than the VHA's formulary, because those formularies are
required to offer all drugs on the FSS, the Federal Supply
Schedule, that manufacturers list for rebates. Now, this
strikes me as curious. The VA runs the formulary situation, but
veterans don't have easy access to those drugs, while Medicaid
beneficiaries do. So I am kind of curious, does this make
sense? How does one analyze this?
Dr. Herdman. Well, it is true that Medicaid is required to
cover all the drugs which manufacturers list for rebates on the
Federal Supply Schedule, and that is a lot of drugs. It is also
true that they can exclude some drugs, as I am sure you know,
the OBRA drugs, which is about 12 categories of drugs, so that
those drugs aren't available under any circumstances unless a
State chooses not to take that exclusion, and it is also true
that Medicaid can enforce prior authorization for drugs, which
does restrict access to the drugs that they choose to list as
drugs that need prior authorization.
And Medicaid programs also have a history, as I am sure you
know, of other limits on drugs. For example, you can only have
three prescriptions a month or three prescriptions over a
certain time period, or a prescription can only have so many
items in it or limits like that, which aren't based on medical
necessity or any scientific or medical analysis of patient need
or drug treatment science, they are just arbitrary limits to
save costs. And generally, I think, the IOM found that they
So that describes the Medicaid program. The VA has, I think
it is fair to say, a more restricted formulary in general
because it lists overall, as you know, 1,200 items, but those
items are not all drugs. Actually, more like 600 items,
varying, depending on the VISN or facility, are probably
actually separate individual pharmaceutical drug products. So
it is more restrictive from that perspective.
But unless you are in a closed or preferred class, I think
it is fair to say, there is reasonable access. I appreciate Ms.
Bascetta's point. We certainly agree with that, that some of
the facilities, they do not stock all the drugs. They may be on
the formulary, but they are not stocked or the formulary may
vary and the adherence isn't perfect.
But leaving that aside, unless you are in the closed or
preferred classes, you have pretty good access to the drugs
that are on the formulary and we thought, the IOM thought, that
the formulary had a very reasonable array of drug products to
cover the kinds of health conditions which veterans came in
with. So that seemed fair enough.
It is true that there are problems with the closed classes.
Insofar as if you don't do well on the drug that is in the
class, you have an adverse reaction, or there isn't a
therapeutic alternate in that class really for you, or for any
of a bunch of reasons that the VA itself lists, that you might
not want to have the drug which is listed in the closed class.
If the drug in the closed class or the preferred class or the
committed use contract or the blanket purchase agreement or
whatever, the restriction, is not the drug that you need and
you are going to do well on, then you may have a problem and
that is a restriction which, I think, often in Medicaid, you
would not run into.
So as the report said, at the end of the day, in some ways,
the VA national formulary is more restrictive, and in some
ways, it is less restrictive than comparison private sector or
public sector formularies, and you have to take the
Chairman Rockefeller. I understand. I understand. I am
going to ask three more questions, and I am not going to hold
you beyond that. This is for you, Dr. Miller, and for you, Mr.
Ogden, should you care to answer.
My question has to do with a recent example of problem
issues with therapeutic interchange, and anybody else can
comment. Obviously, I welcome that. Isn't there an issue right
now, in fact, with automatic substitution of drugs to treat
mental health patients? I am getting at the atypical
Dr. Miller. I have heard that there are some problems in
this area, but I don't have any specific evidence to cite at
this time. Although I am not intimately familiar with the VA's
current policies in that area, the atypical antipsychotics, and
treatment issues for mental illnesses, is a very interesting
area because these people are very sick and oftentimes have
multilayered issues, if you will, oftentimes with accessing
health care. So if there is a problem with their treatment, it
can lead to problems of trust of the provider and the health
system. So making them jump through more hoops to get what
ultimately works for them could lead to problems for those
Mr. Ogden. I would care to comment if I could, please.
There is no automatic substitution of the atypical
antipsychotics in the VA health care system. The current VA
National Formulary listing includes all of the atypical
antipsychotics except for the brand new Pfizer product called
Ziprasidone, which we are still developing. We have already
developed the criteria for its use, but until more efficacy and
safety data is available, we are not going to add it to the
formulary right away.
What we are talking about in the case of the atypical
antipsychotics is--not me or Dr. Garthwaite, but what mental
health professionals are talking about in the field is you have
a class of drugs, in this case, the newer atypical
antipsychotics, the novel antipsychotics, in which there is no
scientific evidence nor consensus at this point in time that
drug A is better than drug B is better than drug C.
So what the field mental health professionals are
contemplating and considering and, in fact, doing is in
patients who have never been on an atypical antipsychotic or in
patients who have had problems with the more traditional, the
typical older antipsychotic drugs, what the mental health
professionals are recommending is using an effective--or begin
therapy with an effective, less expensive agent. That is what
this is all about. It is not a fail-first policy. There is no
fail-first policy. It is guidance that describes what I just
explained to you.
And let me read from three documents that I have from three
different health entities in this Nation concerning this
matter. One of them is dated May 7, 1998.
From a clinical standpoint, there are credible arguments
for using each of these two medications, that is, Olanzapine
and Risperidone, in various circumstances. However, the current
price difference is extraordinary and it would be irresponsible
to prescribe Olanzapine before prescribing Risperidone in
clinical situations where either agent might readily be used.
That, in sum, is what we are talking about and what our
mental health professionals are talking about in VA.
Here is another health plan from the Commonwealth of
Massachusetts. Their Department of Corrections in their
formulary dated October of 2000 said:
Risperidone is the preferred atypical antipsychotic because
it is felt that there is a similar therapeutic equivalency
amongst the class of novel agents and the use of Risperidone is
generally more cost effective than either Olanzapine or
Quetiapine at comparative therapeutic doses. New patients being
started on an atypical antipsychotic agent should begin with a
treatment trial on Risperidone.
So that is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, their
Department of Corrections.
And the last system is the Henry Ford Health System in
Detroit. This is back in 1999 and it said:
At our recent ambulatory pharmacy and therapeutics
committee meeting, we reviewed the atypical antipsychotics and
have chosen Risperidone for listing on the Henry Ford
ambulatory care formulary. The decision was made after
consideration of comparative efficacy, safety, and cost data
for the atypical agents compared to each other in first
generation intermediate to high-potency antipsychotics.
So this kind of activity has been and is occurring in other
health entities across the Nation. Again, we are not talking
about therapeutic interchange of any patient who is on
Olanzapine. That is not what we are talking about. What we are
talking about is VA mental health professionals coming to
similar conclusions as I read into the record by other health
So I think it is a responsible action by our mental health
professionals and certainly one that our PBM group, the medical
advisory panel and our VISN formulary leaders, support.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you very much.
Dr. Herdman, when we are confronted with a need for which
we don't have the money, we start talking cost containment, and
cost containment is terrific in the sense that you can, as we
did in 1993, volume bargain or leverage the cost of
prescription drugs down. On the other hand, it is the old
argument about managed care versus, let us say, fee-for-service
in Medicare or managed care under any circumstances.
The argument, and I can remember in the Finance Committee,
8 to 10 years ago, health professionals coming in and saying,
managed care is going to get you savings, all right, for about
2 years, but then it is going to stop and the cost of their
doing business is going to approximately go up with the cost of
other people's doing business, as indeed we have seen in the
cost per capita cost increase of health care between the United
States and Canada, even though they have a totally different
and presumably less expensive system. The costs, at least up
until recently, have risen at about the same level.
So what I want to get from you and anybody else who would
care to comment on this, particularly for the older, sicker
population among our veterans, is is there a point at which
cost containment in its broadest sense--not just the first 2
years or the let us leverage volume, buy down the cost of
prescription drugs stage--at which cost containment as a
philosophy begins to wrongly intersect with the legitimate
health care needs of a fragile population?
Dr. Herdman. Well, I guess the answer is sure. Sure, there
is such a point. The managed care example that you gave, I
think, is true enough. The easy savings were taken, that is,
the discounts from various kinds of providers and so on.
When you implement a cost containment program, my
experience with that goes back 30 years when I was in New York
working for a Rockefeller, actually. We were doing work on the
Medicaid program. When you implement a cost containment
program, you are going to annoy people because they are not
going to get what they want. And the trick is, I guess, to stay
the course, first of all, and continue to annoy them and to
continue to get the savings, but not to get to the point where,
when you are not giving them what they want, you end up not
giving them what they need, and that is very, very difficult.
What happened in managed care, I think--this is an off-the-
cuff opinion--is that it became politically difficult to not
give people what they wanted. I don't know. There was very
little evidence--I am thinking of some other IOM reports--that
they weren't getting what they needed, although, of course, you
could cite examples of disasters, but those are all anecdotes,
and always occur no matter what kind of a system you look at.
So the answer to your question is, clearly, yes. Now, if
you want to talk about the VA's national formulary and its drug
benefit, the IOM, although it clearly pointed out some
problems, as did GAO, and clearly thinks that there can be
improvements, found by and large, that the system was based on
good medicine and good science and was reasonably careful.
Sure, they had problems with therapeutic interchange, and I
think they are going to continue to have problems with
therapeutic interchange. There is always that possibility, but
by and large, the drug reviews were good, the therapeutic
guidelines were good, and the system actually demonstrably did
save money and so it allowed the VA to put the money elsewhere
and, hopefully, deliver valuable services to veterans.
We couldn't find, and here I emphasize over and over again
the caveat that the data available to look at the quality issue
are lousy or not there at all, but we couldn't find any
evidence that there was an impact on the quality of care of
veterans not getting what they actually needed.
We did, I think you may recall--I don't know if I put it in
my written testimony--that we did look, or actually the Harvard
Department of Health Care Policy, which did the subcontract on
costs, did look at the effect on inpatient hospital discharges
for ulcer-related and heart-related conditions in the VA over
the period before and after changes were made in the formulary
to restrict closed classes of the proton pump inhibitors and
the ACE inhibitors and various drugs which are used for heart
conditions and for ulcer-related conditions and could not find
any changes. I don't want to emphasize that particularly except
to say that it just has to stand on its merits, which are not
very great because it is a very crude study. But at least we
tried to look.
When we looked--and this is a long answer, I am sorry to
keep going on--when we finally got through with all that, we
said those kinds of studies are very important to get at the
issue you are talking about, and what we need, we suggested--
recommended that the VA begin to collect information, cost
information, expenditure information, utilization information,
and outcome information which would help them and you decide
whether they weren't getting what they needed, as opposed to
what they wanted.
Chairman Rockefeller. Comments?
Ms. Bascetta. Yes. Back to our analysis of the non-
formulary process, which, as we pointed out, was the one that
we were the most concerned about, there were a couple other
questions that we asked physicians in our survey. I will remind
you it was a survey of 2,000 physicians, so it is statistically
valid and projectible to the universe of VA doctors.
Only 63 of the 2,000 in the narrative portion of the survey
told us about specific problems they had when they weren't able
to get a non-formulary drug with a patient.
Chairman Rockefeller. When they weren't able to do what?
Ms. Bascetta. When they weren't able to get a non-formulary
Chairman Rockefeller. OK.
Ms. Bascetta. Sixty-three patients is a lot if you are 1 of
the 63 patients. But we took some comfort in knowing that we
didn't have physicians running to us, telling us about all
kinds of serious adverse events or adverse health outcomes. But
they did note suboptimal control of symptoms, particularly with
asthma, pain, and GI disturbances and lipid control. So they
are not insignificant.
They also told us that--33 percent of them told us that
they didn't request a non-formulary waiver because they thought
it would take too long, and 16 percent said that they didn't
request a non-formulary waiver because they thought they would
be denied. So to the extent that, in some locations, that
process might have been a deterrent, we don't know. We don't
have good information about what would have happened to the
I would also like to point out that one of the most
frequent responses that we got from the physicians was that the
patient went and got the non-formulary drug, if they couldn't
get it from the VA, outside. That is, they paid for it out of
their own pockets. We didn't ask this question. I wish we have
the foresight to think about the priority sevens when we were
doing the survey. But it makes me wonder if some of those
veterans had come to VA solely for that benefit, and when they
weren't able to get the specific drug that their private
physician had recommended, they went back outside. That is a
very interesting question, I think.
Chairman Rockefeller. Thank you. Did you want to add
Dr. Miller. I did, Senator, just quickly. I think the
effects on quality from cost containment have to be looked at
systemwide. I want to underline Dr. Herdman's statement about
the need for data to actually determine what is going on.
Examples you can look at are the British health care system,
where experts agree they have underfunded their public system
and they use the safety valve of their private system to keep
things going. In Canada, there is underfunding in certain
areas, with the United States acting as their safety valve for
people coming over here to get some specialized cancer
treatments and things like that. So I think you have got to
look comprehensively at what is going on in the system.
One example of how this interplay can happen between access
and cost containment and how people get what they pay for, more
or less, is what we do in our country for substance abuse,
which, I think, is a big issue for the veterans' population.
Those patients, the low-income veterans, don't have that
``safety valve'' that some patients have who can go elsewhere
for their prescriptions. They can't afford to get it outside
the VA. There is no ``safety valve'' for low-income veterans.
Chairman Rockefeller. I want to thank all of you. I find
these hearings very useful. It may not be so with all, who
think there are too many questions or too detailed questions,
but I think this is the way you ultimately learn issues, and
very important issues affecting very important people.
I have taken a lot of your time and I appreciate that and
thank you very much. This hearing is in recess.
[Whereupon, at 4:37 p.m., the committee was adjourned.]
A P P E N D I X
Prepared Statement of Moe Armstrong on Behalf of the National Alliance
for the Mentally Ill
Chairman Rockefeller, and members of the Committee, I am Moe
Armstrong of Cambridge, MA. I am pleased today to offer the views of
the NAMI-National Alliance for the Mentally Ill on prescription drug
issues in the Department of Veterans Affairs. I would like to direct my
testimony to the important issue of prescription drugs for the
treatment of severe mental illness.
In addition to serving on the NAMI Board, I am a veteran myself. I
served in Vietnam in 1966. I was decorated for bravery in combat with a
Navy Commendation Medal with a Combat V. My life was to be a career
soldier until I became mentally ill.
Since the war, I have received mental health care and vocational
rehabilitation services from the Veterans Administration. I went back
to college and earned two masters degrees. I have worked in public
mental health for almost fifteen years and have received many awards
and acknowledgement from my service with the Massachusetts public
mental health system. I also assist the Veterans Administration in
setting up peer support groups in the North East region.
My prescription benefit comes through the mental health care and
primary medical care, which I still get from the Veterans
Administration. Veteran's mental health and physical health issues are
very severe due to the nature of serving in both combat and the
service. I have sometimes thought that my one-year in Vietnam was like
ten years in a job outside the service. Veterans need specialized and
intensive care. We also deserve care equal to care outside the VA. Part
of that care is receiving access to the best medication available.
Having a major mental illness since the war means that I need good
medication so that I can cool out. Once stable, I can do almost
anything. I can go to school, go to work, and live in the community
without excessive hospitalizations. Modern medications are almost a
miracle. These new psychiatric medications are the best. They take away
many of the psychiatric symptoms without downing out the person.
I take this medication. This is the best that I have felt since the
war. I want everyone to have access to this new medication and I want
people to continue to have access to the new medications. If your life
were in danger of falling apart from mental illness or a member of you
family were in the situation of psychiatrically falling apart, I am
sure that you also would want access to this new medication.
I also currently serve as a member of the VA's Consumer Advisory
Council on veterans with severe mental illness.
who is nami?
NAMI is the nation's largest national organization, 220,000 members
representing persons with serious brain disorders and their families.
Through our 1,200 chapters and affiliates in all 50 states, we support
education, outreach, advocacy and research on behalf of persons with
serious brain disorders such as schizophrenia, manic depressive
illness, major depression, severe anxiety disorders and major mental
illnesses affecting children.
Mr. Chairman, for too long severe mental illness has been shrouded
in stigma and discrimination. These illnesses have been misunderstood,
feared, hidden, and often ignored by science. Only in the last decade
have we seen the first real hope for people with these brain disorders
through pioneering research that has uncovered both biological
underpinnings for these brain disorders and treatments that work.
Today, I would like to urge the Committee to continue to monitor
progress on implementation of restrictive drug formularies by VISNs
that cover psychotropic medications. NAMI's Veterans Committee
continues to hear reports of veterans with mental illness not getting
access to the newest and most effective atypical anti-psychotic
medications. Specifically, NAMI strongly objects to any treatment
directive that would interfere with the clinician's choice of the best
medication for each patient based on that individual patient's clinical
needs. While cost is an appropriate consideration, it should be only
one factor in medication choice and must not be allowed to be the
primary consideration in choosing a medication to treat severe mental
illness. The VA's Committee on Severely and Chronically Mentally Ill
veterans reports that currently 17% of VA's total pharmacy budget is
spent on psychotropic medications, however there is great variance in
the use of the newest and most effective medications which have been
proven effective in treating schizophrenia. NAMI feels strongly that
veterans with mental illness deserve full access to the newest and most
NAMI would like to thank you and the members of this Committee who
have questioned the VA on the development of treatment guidelines for
schizophrenia. The VA has heard from both members in the Senate and the
House regarding veterans having access to the newest and best
treatments for their illness. Secretary Principi responded to these
concerns and NAMI was reassured to see the following statements in his
response letter and accompanying fact sheet of July 10, sent to several
concerned members of Congress:
``. . . I can assure you that the recommendations under
development will continue to place clinician assessment of patient
needs as the first consideration in the prescription of antipsychotic
``The proposed guideline and existing VISN guidelines
assume the selection of atypical antipsychotic therapy must and will be
based on physicians' assessment of clinical circumstances and patient
``. . . no patients who are currently being effectively
treated with an atypical antipsychotic will have their medications
changed as a result of the proposed guidelines.''
``. . . the proposed guidelines do not restrict a treating
physician from prescribing any specific atypical antipsychotic that may
best meet a patient's needs, based on the physician's clinical
``Atypical antipsychotic prescribing will continue to be
driven by clinical needs of patients as determined by their treating
Mr. Chairman, unfortunately, actual events have not been
reassuring. Although in theory the central role of clinical judgment is
recognized in the draft guidelines, in practice there is ample evidence
that the VA's schizophrenia guidelines are focused on cost-cutting
rather than optimal clinical care. As NAMI feared, some parts of the
Veterans Administration are implementing pharmacy guidelines in a way
that is inconsistent with the letter sent by the Secretary,
inconsistent with the draft guidelines, and most importantly,
inconsistent with good evidence-based clinical care for our Nation's
veterans. Policies are being implemented that do not serve the best
interests of our Nation's veterans.
Cost containment of the atypical antipsychotic drugs appears to
have become an overriding goal of some VA behavioral health programs,
even though the cost of antipsychotic medications are overall less than
15% of the cost of treating the illness in most health care settings.
NAMI's Veterans Committee members and staff have received reports that
cost-control efforts have resulted in the following unacceptable
Patients stabilized on the more costly atypical during an
inpatient stay have been switched to a less expensive product soon
after discharge, in direct contrast to VA assurances.
Physicians' prescribing of the more costly atypical has
been actively discouraged, both formally and informally. Pharmacists
have called physicians to ask that they change their prescriptions to a
less costly drug to comply with the ``guidelines.''
Specific plans have been outlined to monitor physician
practices, to assure that the more costly medication is prescribed less
often, and to punish those who continue to prescribe the medication,
believing it represents the best alternative for their particular
Unfortunately, many of these instances have been documented
informally, in part because VA staff report some concern about possible
reprisals if they are publicly associated with these disclosures.
Fortunately for our advocacy cause, one of the VA service chiefs was
indiscrete enough to put his enforcement plan into writing.
This type of enforcement of ``compliance with guidelines'' is
common but is usually more subtle and informal--and thus more difficult
to document. Mr. Chairman, I believe you will agree that this program
of forcing compliance through quantitative goals included in a
physician's performance review is chilling. This sort of single-minded
attention to cost-savings without regard for the clinical well-being of
the individual veteran is exactly the kind of ``guideline
implementation'' we have seen in the past and feared would accompany
these new VA ``guidelines.'' Our fears appear to be well-founded.
NAMI endorses basing treatment on the available scientific evidence
and on the needs of the individual veteran. Research, and guidelines
based on this research, call for most patients with schizophrenia to
receive atypical antipsychotics. Although there is little evidence of
overall group differences in effects on psychotic symptoms, there is
ample evidence that these atypical antipsychotic agents differ from one
another in biological effects and in side effects. There is ample
clinical experience to suggest that individual patients may respond to
one atypical medication but not another. Thus, clinical judgement plays
a vital role in the selection of the most appropriate medication for a
However, the fundamental purpose of the proposed VA guidelines is
not guidance in selecting the best medication for a particular
veteran--rather, the fundamental purpose is to reduce pharmacy costs by
producing a shift to prescribing less costly atypical antipsychotic
drugs. Such a shift in prescribing could be justified if the atypical
antipsychotics were in fact equivalent and interchangeable. As noted
above, they are not.
The VA states that ``there is no valid medical evidence of the
value of one drug over another in managing a disorder.'' In fact, there
is ample evidence of substantial side effect differences among the
medications, a vital consideration in the management of schizophrenia
and in promoting adherence to treatment.
Mr. Chairman, the VA also states that ``a number of private and
public health care organizations are, in fact, using prioritization
systems for the atypical antipsychotic medications similar to those
proposed by VA.'' It is possible that some HMOs and some isolated
programs may do so, but we would be interested to know which states and
which major health insurance programs do this. In the public sector, we
are not aware of any state that has implemented the type of restrictive
guidelines that VA is proposing. Florida, Oregon, Kentucky, Hawaii,
Missouri, Tennessee and Arizona have implemented preferred drug lists
but exempt mental health drugs. Texas has implemented the Texas
Medication Algorithm Project (TMAP) which supports open access to all
atypical antipsychotic medications that are effective for treatment of
a specific disorder. Within the algorithm, TMAP does not favor one
specific medication over another. It is clinical judgement and patient
preference and acceptance that determine the choice. The state of Texas
follows TMAP and uses medication cost as a basis for choice only if
there is no clinical reason to prefer one drug over another.
In most private healthcare plans, tiered co-pays are commonly used
rather than restricting access to atypical medications. We know of no
private plan that has implemented a restrictive policy that requires a
patient to utilize the type of ``step therapy'' that VA is proposing
for the use of atypical antipsychotics, and would be interested in any
that could be identified.
In any case, the existence of isolated instances does not justify a
wide-ranging VA policy. Within the past two years, isolated Medicaid
and VA programs have proposed putting patients back on conventional
antipsychotics, complete with a markedly increased risk of tardive
dyskinesia. I believe we would all agree that these proposals were
irresponsible and possibly unethical. The fact that someone interested
in cutting costs will propose a plan does not make it right.
NAMI understands the VA's concerns about the pricing of
pharmaceuticals and the VA's desire to pressure the manufacturer of the
more costly antipsychotic to lower the price. But we find it utterly
unacceptable for the VA to drag our Nation's veterans with severe
mental illnesses into the middle of contractual issues and to use the
veterans as leverage to lower acquisition costs.
NAMI believes that these guidelines should be suspended until there
are better data to examine the complex issues of comparative efficacy,
effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, and side effects. NAMI strongly
urges this Committee to suspend this VA policy as applied to
antipsychotic medications and to stop the promulgation of any new
schizophrenia treatment guidelines until the National Institute of
Mental Health presents the results of the Clinical Anti-Psychotic
Trials of Intervention Effectiveness Project, which will look at the
atypical antipsychotic medications and the advantages of one medication
over another. At the very least, they should be suspended until the VA
develops adequate controls over the implementation of guidelines to
assure that clinician judgment regarding choice of medications is
respected in practice as well as in theory. In particular, it is
evident there would need to be, at a minimum:
a directive forbidding the collection and use of
individual physician prescribing profiles
a directive forbidding the introduction of cost-
containment criteria into performance reviews
a formal monitoring program to examine all instances in
which a less expensive medication is substituted for a more expensive
medication to assure that stable patients are not switched
a formal program by which violations of these directives
by overzealous pharmacy or behavioral science managers could be
reported without fear of reprisal
These constraints will help assure that treatment decisions are
made by the veteran and the clinician, with the individual veteran's
interests being the first and foremost concern.
We know we share a commitment to providing our veterans with the
best available treatment for their illnesses and look forward to
continued discussions about the best ways to assure optimal, effective,
and cost-effective care.
Mr. Chairman, on behalf of NAMI 220,000 members, 1,200 affiliates,
and the members of the NAMI Veterans Committee, I would like to thank
you for the opportunity to share our views on prescription drug issues
in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Prepared Statement of Jacqueline Garrick, ACSW, CSW, CTS, Deputy
Director, Health Care, National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation
Commission, The American Legion
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:
The American Legion appreciates the opportunity to provide its
insights and experiences in dealing with the VA formulary and the
prescription drug benefit provided.
The scientific advances in medicine have been miraculous! People
are living healthier and longer lives due to the availability of
technology and science. Screening and testing allows physicians to
identify illnesses and diseases in their early stages and treatment
protocols are becoming more sophisticated and targeted. Disease, pain,
complications, side effects, and death are being mitigated. Medication
continues to play a vital role in these advancements. The availability
of pharmaceutical products, however, has become a major focus of
debate. Issues range from ethical considerations, cost, demand, and
availability. VA has not been immune, especially about its formulary
and prescribing practices.
Last year, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a study,
Description and Analysis of the VA National Formulary, to capture the
challenges VA, the single largest purchaser of pharmaceuticals in
America, faces as it attempts to optimize its approach in providing
quality care to veterans. The American Legion applauds the breadth and
depth of this analysis and shares concerns over restrictiveness,
therapeutic interchange and generic substitutions, physician
satisfaction and patient compliance.
The American Legion clearly understands the need for a formulary.
Formularies offer pharmacological evidence-based treatment guidelines
in conjunction with the ability to negotiate price using its leverage
to drive market share. Formularies are commonplace in today's
healthcare market. Managed care organizations, private hospitals and
state Medicaid programs all rely on them. There is documentation that
VA has relied on a formulary process since 1955. However, with the
advent of the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) and the
Veterans Equitable Resource Allocation (VERA) methodology, the issue of
pharmaceutical management has received heightened attention.
Veterans are very concerned about their access to pharmaceuticals
and the quality of life they know they can attain through medication
management. The IOM stated that only 0.4 percent of veterans complained
about access to medication (based on data from patient advocates and
the /Veterans of Foreign Wars.) However, in a recent American Legion VA
Local User Evaluation (VALUE) survey, it found that veterans were
concerned about pharmaceutical access 88 percent of the time.
The greatest impact on the VA formulary system has been the fixed
budget appropriation from Congress. It has forced VA to become more
cost efficient and make more budget-driven decisions across the board.
In its attempt to reduce duplication, streamline operations and cut
costs, The American Legion believes that, in some areas, VA has gone
too far. VA had estimated its FY 2000 pharmaceutical budget to be 15
percent. However, only 12 percent was spent nationally, with some
VISN's significantly less than that (about nine percent).
Pharmaceutical purchasing and Hepatitis C Virus are the only two
areas in which VA under spent from its projected budget. In spite of
the fact that pharmaceutical prices are rising and research is costly,
VA spent less money on treating veterans with medication than it could
have done. The American Legion attributes this to the restrictive
nature of the formulary and the complicated procedure to use non-
Although IOM's report concluded ``The VA National Formulary is not
overly restrictive.'' (IOM, 2000) The report did make several
recommendations for changes, which included increased monitoring of
generic substitutions and therapeutic interchanges, improve timeliness
in adding newly approved FDA drugs to the formulary, improve non-
formulary processes, provide education on formulary practices to
veterans, and to continue the formulary based on quality practices and
cost efficiency. The American Legion supports these recommendations,
however believes IOM did not fully consider some of the problems
associated with the formulary, and several other problem areas were not
discussed in this report.
First, The American Legion notes that not enough attention was
given to the off formulary process. During its site visits to VA
facilities, physicians who report on the punitive nature and fear of
poor performance evaluations they will get if they go off formulary too
often confront The American Legion. Contrary to the position of VA
Central Office, physicians do not feel free to use their best judgment
in prescribing medication for their patients. The American Legion hears
this complaint from providers all across the VA system and believes it
is an unintended consequence of the non-formulary process. In addition,
physicians describe this process as complicated and time consuming,
which acts as a disincentive to do it.
In recent months, The American Legion has been involved with a
serious discussion over an algorithm from VISN 22 (Law, Magcale 2001)
that calls for patients to ``fail first' with a ``documented adverse
event'' on an anti-psychotic medication before the next drug in that
class can be used. The American Legion strongly holds that physicians
must be able to prescribe medication that is in the best interest of
their patients without the fear of poor performance evaluations and
disciplinary actions. Doctors, in a working relationship with their
patients are the best and most cost efficient treatment asset the VA
has. Properly trained and well supported, physicians and other
providers make decisions in the best interest of the patient and should
not be second-guessed by administrators and financial officers.
``Getting it right the first time'' is truly the best approach to
medicine. Restrictions that require patients to fail are immoral and
inhumane. The American Legion recognizes that these pharmaceuticals can
be expensive, but are not nearly as expensive as prolonged inpatient
stays, incarceration, or rehabilitation can be. The American Legion is
aware that the House VA, HUD and Independent Agencies appropriations
bill for FY 2002 calls for VA to ``immediately suspend the fail first
policy as applied to anti-psychotic medications'' and is grateful to
the committee for its intervention. The American Legion hopes that this
directive will be applied to all drug classes and not just to the anti-
The American Legion is also concerned about VA's use of generic
substitutions and therapeutic interchanges. Although IOM does conclude
that these practices are acceptable, it does note that ``pharmaceutical
equivalents may not always have the same therapeutic effect or safety
profile.'' Other factors, such as compounding technology,
bioavailability, and patient acceptance or compliance, may be
important.'' (IOM 2000) Although the generic drugs are more economical,
they are not as widely available as the brand name drugs (only about
half of the brand name drugs have a generic version).
The greater concern, here, however is that the substitutes, as IOM
points out, may not be as effective or safe. Medication that does not
work costs more in the long run and results in additional clinic
visits, testing, and hospitalization, not to mention the pain and
suffering the veteran experiences. The American Legion strongly
recommends that the efficacy and safety profiles of these drugs be a
higher weighted criterion for selection than simple up front cost. The
ultimate cost of ineffectiveness and adverse events are too high a
price for the veteran to pay.
The American Legion views therapeutic interchanges in the same
light as generic substitutions. Veterans should not be subject to
changes in their prescriptions each year when VA renegotiates contracts
with the pharmaceutical companies. Patients, whose condition has become
stabilized, should not be forced to change medication it in order for
VA to save money. This can result in non-compliance or compliance
confusion, adverse events, and/or negative side effects for the
veteran. For the most part, the VA patient has a more complex medical
profile than does the patient enrolled in managed care in the private
sector and can not be equally compared. Therapeutic interchanges do not
contain the same, chemically identical, active ingredients and the
American Medical Association (AMA) describes them as ``not
pharmaceutical equivalents.'' (AMA, 1997) This difference in a complex
and frail patient who is already on multiple medications and receives
various treatments increases the patient's risk for treatment failure.
A secondary issue to therapeutic interchanges is, how they are
being made? IOM finds that ``therapeutic interchanges usually means
that a specific prescriber approval exists before dispensing except in
settings where exchange according to a collaborative practice agreement
or a preapproved policy and protocol is practical and has been accepted
by prescribers.'' The American Legion has not found this to always be
the case and that there can be confusion between the prescriber, the
pharmacy and the patient. In focus groups conducted by The American
Legion, a primary complaint from patients is that they get a
prescription from their provider that they then take to the pharmacy,
which will not fill the prescription because it is not on the formulary
or they get a different drug. If they complain to the pharmacist, they
are sent back to the clinic to discuss it with the prescriber, who by
now, is seeing another patient. If they wait, the prescriber will
change the prescription or contact the pharmacy on behalf of the
patient and then will send the veteran back to the pharmacy. At any
point in this frustrating scenario, the ailing veteran will feel too
dejected and angered to continue and will depart the VA with no
medication, returning when symptoms have worsened. The veteran is
labeled as non-compliant and not seen as a candidate for newer
treatment or research protocols.
IOM's report and VA leadership consistently recommends those issues
surrounding patient's compliance and physician expertise is inherent in
the education and training provided. The American Legion is a strong
proponent of this concept and is in the process of launching its own
patient and provider educational series, which is its Teamed for Health
Campaign. This initiative will bring together the Department of Health
and Human Services, (HHS) VA and industry to produce educational
materials that The American Legion can distribute to its membership, VA
users, and Medicare beneficiaries to improve the health status of those
patients. Provider information will also be included in this initiative
in order to keep physicians up to date on the latest research and
treatment protocols. The American Legion sees this effort as a means of
improving patient compliance and assisting in medication management,
while improving best practice trends in VA and with HHS providers.
In another related matter, The American Legion has concerns over
VA's Consolidated Mail Out Pharmacy (CMOP) system. Since 1999, CMOP
service has been available nationwide to VHA's 22 VISNs. The program is
currently running at maximum capacity with an estimated 61.3 million
prescriptions annually. This production level has reached or exceeded
the workload design of each of the CMOP facilities. Consequently, there
are significant physical plant issues within the system. A prime
example of this is the CMOP located at the Greater Los Angles Health
Care System (GLAHCS). Established in a retrofitted warehouse on the
grounds of the Brentwood Campus, annual production was originally
designed at the level of 2.5 million prescriptions. In 2000, production
was increased to 4.5 million prescriptions.
However, the building is poorly configured, limiting the capacity
and efficiency of the operation. Additionally, the equipment frequently
breakdowns, and the first-generation automated system (installed in
1994) is currently so old that parts are hard to get. The newest
generation of dispensing equipment could nearly double the ratio of
prescriptions dispensed to patients per worker. Clearly, new space and
equipment are needed.
Overall, CMOP's program has no ability to respond to emergent need.
Moreover, CMOP lacks the capacity to meet projected increases in
workloads for FY 2002. There is no capacity for initiatives with other
federal agencies beyond limited pilots. Solutions include:
Expanding space and equipment at five CMOPs to new
Replacing the two oldest CMOPs .
Constructing additional CMOP facilities.
These are essential initiatives if CMOP's system hopes to be
effective in its crucial role in the delivery of pharmaceutical
services to America's veterans and their dependents.
In conclusion, The American Legion believes VA under spent on its
pharmaceutical purchases as a result of a budget-driven philosophy that
is clouding the intention of a formulary and is not always allowing for
best practices to prevail. Restrictions, substitutions and interchanges
need to be better monitored and carefully accounted for when utilized.
Well-educated and well-supported providers are key to successful
treatment and their clinical expertise and judgment should drive
prescription practices for their patient population. Each veteran must
be assured that they are getting the best possible care that not only
the VA has to offer, but that the industry overall has available.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee The American Legion is
again grateful for this opportunity to present to you its experiences,
and other comments in the intricacies of medication management within
VA and concludes its statement.
Prepared Statement of Richard W. Hills, Jr., President, Veterans
Network for the Mentally Ill
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:
I am Dick Hills from Greenville, South Carolina. I am pleased today
to offer the views of the Veterans Network for the Mentally Ill (VET
NET) on the restrictions placed on select medications within the
Department of Veterans Administration (VA) to the Senate Veterans'
I am a Vietnam Veteran who has come to view the devastating affects
mental illness can have on both an individual and the individual's
family, and the hope of recovery offered by the newer medications.
From a variety of vantage points, I have been part of the
psychiatric community for the past 33 years. I have worked the wards as
a psychiatric Aide at the Bangor State Hospital and in the front office
as President and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Chestnut Hill
Psychiatric Hospital in Travelers Rest, South Carolina.
This professional direction and advocacy activities are the result
of personal life events. After four years in the Air Force, while
attending graduate school on the G.I. Bill at Boston University, my
first wife, in whose care I am still involved, was brutally raped and
consequently suffered from sever chronic mental illness. As a result of
this illness, she spent more than 20 year in a locked psychiatric
hospital, a large part of that time in a psychotic state locked in a
seclusion room. Today, after failing on medications for years,
Clozaril, the first of the new atypical antipsychotic medications, has
been instrumental in her recovery. She now lives in her own house with
her pet dog and even has her own riding lawn mower. In addition to my
first wife, I also am involved with my son who is currently treated
As both a family member and as a professional, I have served on a
variety of committees and boards over the years including Past Co-
Chairman of the NAMI Veterans' Committee [currently the Veterans
Network for the Mentally Ill], the Consumer Liaison Council of the
Committee on Care of Severely Chronically Mentally Ill Veterans, The
Task Force for the Revision of the Veterans Affairs Mental Health
Manual, The (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) Finance
Committee, Past Chairman of the Coalition of Networks and Councils of
NAMI, South Carolina Department of Mental Health State Planning
Council, Board of Directors NAMI of South Carolina, Board of Directors
Greenville, South Carolina Alliance for the Mentally Ill to name a few.
guidelines restricting the use of atypical antipsychotic medications
Guidelines that include fail first restrictions, or exclude newer
agents such as Geodon, work to administer medications. The practice of
medicine is both and art and a science.
Moreover, each veteran is an individual, and each individual reacts
differently to each medication. For this reason, law requires that only
properly licensed physicians prescribe medications for individual
patients whom they have examined and whose symptoms they have
Cover letters and/or other documents make it clear that the intent
of these guidelines is to save money. It is well known and accepted
that cost can most effectively be reduced by successful patient
recovery. Psychiatric medication should only be used as one part of a
comprehensive treatment plan. Ongoing evaluation and monitoring by a
physician is essential. Psychiatrists receive extensive training beyond
medical school to enable them to make these decisions. Such guidelines
actively restrict access to important medications and may delay and/or
hinder successful recovery and thus increase cost at the expense of the
patient's well being.
The VET NET does encourage, however, guidelines or policy which
would call for all mental health professionals employed by and who
contract with the VA, to become familiar with, including ongoing
training, the use of all atypical antipsychotic medications including
Clozaril, Risperdal, Zyprexa, Seroquil, and Geodon.
additional restricting of the atypical clozaril by protocols
A study recently published by the VA states, ``Clozapine use
deserves special scrutiny, as clozapine is the only antipsychotic agent
proven effective in patients with refractory schizophrenia. In the VA,
just 2.7% of veterans with schizophrenia received clozapine in FY00.
This is surprisingly low rate of prescription, given that 20-25% of
patients with schizophrenia are refractory to treatment with other
With the VA serving close to 200,000 patients with psychosis, over
102,000 with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, it is estimated that in 2000
between 17,600 to as many as 47,200 remained prisoners in their
psychotic mind as a result of not receiving clozapine.
Considering that death from suicide among schizophrenic patients is
9% to 13%, the restrictive use of clozapine (which has a proven ability
to reduce suicide and suicidal attempts), pose a real and measurable
risk to life.
Low use of this agent is due to a VA wide protocol, which makes
access difficult by requiring the submission of a multi page
application for pre-approval before a patient may be started on the
drug. The restricting effect of this protocol is compounded by the
resulting lack of experience with the agent created by the restrictions
and the stigma of danger that the special protocol implies. This
protocol was appropriate when clozaril was the only atypical on the
market and use of this new class of drug was unknown. Today, however,
there are four other atypical agents available, and atypical use is
common with approximately 70% of VA patients with schizophrenia
receiving an atypical medication. Such a complex protocol is not
required for any of the newer atypical agents and is unseen elsewhere
in the country.
With this in mind, we recommend that barriers to the use of
Clozaril be reviewed with the hope of eliminated or streamlining this
protocol and improving access and utilization of this unique drug.
restriction of psyciatric medications to older veterans
The VET NET encourages the committee to take the steps necessary to
insure that veterans being treated in other areas of the VA such as
nursing homes, residential beds, or on an outpatient basses be properly
screened and when appropriate have access to the most effective
medications under the supervision of a properly trained psychiatrist.
Mentally ill geriatric patients are frequently overlooked simply as a
result of age or frailty. We expect our seniors to experience some
effects of dementure as they become older, and do not think of this
population as suffering from treatable biological mental illness. A
report of the Surgeon General, however, shows that at least 10 to 20
percent of widows and widowers succumb to clinical depression in the
year following their spouse's death. Moreover, it has been estimated
that 75% of individuals being treated for Alzheimer's disease are not
receiving any of the available medications for that illness.
In addition, the uncontrolled closure of beds has resulted in an
acute shortage of psychiatric beds in many areas of the county. As a
result, many mentally ill veterans who would otherwise be in an acute
psychiatric bed are placed in nursing home or residential beds intended
for older patients. A recent VA study showed that utilization of VA
nursing home beds for psychiatric patients had increased from 3.1% in
1999 to 4.4% in 2000. This data not only confirms the presence of these
patients, but also shows that this problem is expanding.
All of our veterans have earned and deserve access to the most
effective medications available and to have them administer by properly
trained individuals. We ask that psychiatric care is offered though-out
the VA long-term care units under the supervision of individual's
appropriately trained in psychiatry and who have unrestricted access to
the newer, more effective medications.
This concludes my statement. Thank you for asking us to present
views on this important issue and for your concern for our nations
deserving mentally ill veterans.