This posting was written by John W. Arden.
The American Antitrust Institute (AAI) has asked the Federal Trade Commission to seek an injunction against Express Scripts’ acquisition of Medco Health Solutions, which “poses a threat to substantially lessen competition in the provision of pharmacy benefit manager services throughout the United States.”
In a November 30 letter addressed to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, the AAI stated that the combination of two of the three largest national pharmacy benefit management services (PBMs)—and the additional vertical integration that such a combination fosters—would threaten competition and raise prices to large plan sponsors and, ultimately, consumers.
The three largest providers of PBM services control more than 80 percent of the “large plan sponsor market,” and the combined Express Scripts-Medco firm would control approximately 50 percent of that market, according to AAI President Albert A. Foer and Advisory Board Member Dan Gustafson. The third of the “big three” PBMs is CVS Caremark.
This market share is particularly concerning because of the structure of the market and the substantial barriers to entry and expansion, the letter said. The three major PBMs already have significant cost advantages from economies of scale and from vertical integration in mail order and specialty pharmacy distribution.
“When faced with these difficult entry and expansion barriers, the remaining second tier PBMs cannot adequately constrain potential anticompetitive conduct because of their smaller size, geographic limitations, lack of buyer power, and, in some cases, perceived conflicts regarding their corporate affiliation with plan sponsors.”
Large Plan Sponsors
More than 40 of the “Fortune 50” corporations rely on the three largest PBM providers. “Not surprisingly, when one of the big three PBMs loses a large plan sponsor, it almost inevitably [goes] to another one of the big three.”
Smaller competitors typically lack adequate claims-processing capabilities to serve national accounts and have only limited ability to secure discounts and rebates from drug suppliers and to provide lower dispensing fees from pharmacies.
Specialty and Mail Order Distribution
The proposed combination of Express Scripts and Medco is likely to lead to the merged entity’s exercise of enhanced buyer market power in the market for specialty and mail order pharmacy distribution, according to the letter.
“The proposed merger would heighten the risk that these major PBMs would push compensation to many retail pharmacies below what would be competitive levels, ultimately leading to higher prices and lost jobs. An adverse impact on the delivery of pharmaceutical services at the retail level should be sufficient by itself to raise serious concerns about the proposed merger.”
Exclusion of Rivals in Specialty Pharmacy Services
The merged firm would have the ability and incentive to exclude rivals in the provision of specialty pharmacy services, it was alleged. All of the big three PBMs have acquired specialty pharmaceutical companies recently, reducing the number of independent specialty pharmacies and giving the big three power over the downstream specialty pharmacy distribution chain.
Exclusion of Rivals in Mail Order Pharmacy Services
The merger would create the largest mail order pharmacy in the country, accounting for nearly 60 percent of all mail order prescriptions processed, according to the AAI.
“This poses several potential competitive threats. First, further consolidation of the PBM market would exacerbate the competitive disadvantages that smaller, second tier PBMs without vertically integrated mail order operations already face. Second, consolidation of mail order pharmacies threatens to lead to anticompetitive self-dealing. A vertically integrated PBM can channel prescriptions to its own mail order facilities instead of to retail pharmacy competitors, even if the cost of filling the prescription is more than it would be at a local pharmacy.”
Small community pharmacies may also be threatened by this mail order business, the letter maintained.
In light of these competitive threats, the AAI urged the FTC to seek to enjoin the merger.
Text of the letter appears here on the American Antitrust Institute’s website.