CVS Smoke-Free Pharmacy Benefit Excludes Tobacco-Selling Rivals

By Bruce Japsen
Forbes, October 20, 2014

CVS Health (CVS) confirmed its Caremark pharmacy benefit management subsidiary would sell a smoke-free drugstore network to employers and health plans that would provide subscriber discounts for using “tobacco-free” pharmacies.

The move, which would benefit CVS Health pharmacies given the company’s decision to stop selling tobacco, could at the same time hurt rivals like Walgreens, Wal-Mart and others because a health plan subscriber that would use pharmacies outside the Caremark smoke-free network would pay higher co-payments and related cost-sharing.

CVS Health is able to exact some control on customer choices of prescription purchases through its Caremark pharmacy benefit management (PBM) subsidiary, which has contracts with CVS pharmacies as well as myriad other drugstore chains and independent pharmacies.

“Following our announcement that we would no longer be selling tobacco at CVS/pharmacy, a number of our pharmacy benefit management clients approached us about developing a tobacco-free pharmacy network,” Carolyn Castel, vice president of corporate communications at CVS Health said in an e-mailed statement to Forbes.

“As a result, CVS Health is in the process of identifying pharmacies that do not sell tobacco products to participate in such a new offering. We look forward to making this new pharmacy network available to our clients who choose this offering and providing their plan members with an option to select a tobacco-free environment for their prescription fulfillment needs.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Pharmalot blog reported CVS Health’s Caremark PBM would require a co-pay of “up to $15,” but CVS Health wouldn’t confirm any specifics on a cost-sharing structure.

It’s believed to be a first, according to health benefits analysts who see CVS Health’s move as a narrow network strategy, which is becoming more common from insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers.

Insurers and benefit managers can better control costs by limiting plan subscriber choices to a smaller group of medical-care providers. By limiting choices, insurers say they can better focus on quality of medical care that is delivered to plan customers.…

Last month CVS announced, with considerable fanfare, that it would discontinue sales of tobacco products at its drugstores – a move that would cost it $2 billion in annual sales. After a month-long publicity campaign touting its altruistic action in support of a healthier America, we learn of the not-so-noble purpose of their decision.

They are claiming that in response to this move, numerous pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) clients approached them to request that they develop “a tobacco-free pharmacy network.” Sure they did. One month ago, they announced the end of tobacco sales one, but making that announcement one month ahead of their intended schedule. By splitting the announcements, they a get a twofer: favorable publicity for ending tobacco sales, and then publicity for a new PBM program that would allow them to “focus on quality of medical care” by selling drugs in a tobacco-free environment (as if there were a difference in identical pills sold in their tobacco-free stores versus the stores of their competitors that still carried tobacco products).

They are clearly being dishonest when that say that this concept arose only as an afterthought when their PBM clients suggested that it would be a good idea to segregate tobacco-free chains in their PBM plans. Obviously this was a carefully thought out marketing plan. Tobacco-free was a ruse. Their obvious deception in their releases should make us question the integrity of their entire organization.

So what are they really doing? Two of the most important moves in health insurance products have been to shift more costs to the consumers (whom we call patients) and to establish narrow networks that are anti-competitive, benefiting the insurer financially. CVS now owns one of the nation’s largest PBMs: Caremark.

What they are doing is to establish a narrow network of tobacco-free pharmacies (primarily CVS) which will be dominated by CVS’s own Caremark PBM. If the customers (patients) obtain their prescriptions outside of their narrow network, they will be required to pay larger out-of-pocket costs. Wow! With their own PBM they are introducing the health insurer innovations of higher patient cost-sharing and narrow networks. We’re screwed again!

How would it be under single payer? We would have a national formulary that included all appropriate medications. Pharmaceuticals would be priced properly through bulk purchasing and other forms of administered pricing, and they would be paid for through equitable public financing. There would be no crooks controlling the gates that would otherwise impair access to the medications that we need.