Thursday, April 10, 2014

United Healthcare Does 180 Degree on Mail Order Pharmacy

By Anna Meghan Nunn
Intern from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Department of Public and International Affairs

A lawsuit filed in June 2013 by Consumer Watchdog and handled by national law firm Whatley Kallas, LLC in Orange County federal court has reached a settlement, bringing welcome news to many United Healthcare policy holders living with HIV/AIDS. The class action lawsuit was filed against the nation’s largest health insurance company. In the lawsuit, Consumer Watchdog alleged that the insurance giant was illegally forcing its policy holders living with HIV/AIDS to order their prescription medications through their own in-house mail-order pharmacy. When United Healthcare made the decision, these policy holders were forced to make a choice: transfer their prescriptions to its in-house mail-order pharmacy or pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to continue their relationships with their local retail pharmacists.

In June 2013, PR Newswire published an article, quoting Consumer Watchdog staff attorney Jerry Flanagan as saying:

United’s decision to force their most vulnerable members into a pharmacy program not of their choosing is harmful to the very people United is supposed to be protecting. Patients, not insurers, should be allowed to decide how, when and where they buy their medications.”

The settlement was reached on March 20, 2014; it required United Healthcare to allow patients to opt-out of the mail-order plan and resume receiving their medications at their local pharmacy.
The argument against the mail-order plan is four fold.

First, healthcare advocates fear that eliminating the patient-pharmacist relationship would have adverse effects on the patient’s ability to navigate the complications that come with taking multiple medications as part of a daily routine. Pharmacists are unable to monitor potential drug interactions when they are cut out of the healthcare process through the implementation of mail-order plans. Additionally, pharmacists offer valuable counseling and advice that many patients depend on.

Pharmacists are in a unique position to assist patients with questions they may have about their medications before they take them home. Further, they are able to develop relationships with patients that further assist with ensuring safe and proper adherence to their prescription drug routines. As it stands now, United has replaced these relationships with an 800 number.

A second concern about these mail-order plans is that they cause patients to miss out on discounts offered exclusively at retail pharmacies. In a time when rising costs of medications is increasingly burdening people living with HIV/AIDS, these opportunities to save money on medications are crucial.

A further reservation is that there is a serious issue of patient-privacy with mail-order plans. A news release issued by Consumer Watchdog (3/20/2014) clarifies this point stating, …HIV/AIDS specialty medications often are delivered in refrigerated containers. Patients who live in apartment buildings or have medications delivered to their work-place have expressed alarm that neighbors, co-workers, and employees, who do not know that the recipient has HIV/AIDS, would come to suspect that they are seriously ill.

Finally, there is the issue of time lag with mail delivery. Many of these medications must be refrigerated and therefore are time sensitive. In addition, these medications are often life-saving for some of the most vulnerable people living with HIV/AIDS. The issue of time lag with respect to slow delivery, mix-ups at the postal service, and mishandling of medications could potentially be life threatening.

Consumer Watchdog had also alleged that United Healthcare’s requirement was discriminatory in nature, illegally targeting those policy holders living with HIV/AIDS.

The ADAP Advocacy Association agreed. In a press release issued last year in response to another insurance carrier mandating the same policy to its policy holders living with HIV/AIDS,  Brandon Macsata said:

Patients should be afforded as many treatment options as possible, especially when combating a chronic disease such as HIV/AIDS. Any policy that restricts the patient’s ability to interact directly with healthcare professionals, including a pharmacist, is counter intuitive to promoting better medication adherence, which is critically important to improved health.

Although this statement was in response to another lawsuit filed by Consumer Watchdog against Anthem Blue Cross of California, its message rings true in this case as well.  

Consumer Watchdog settled a similar lawsuit against Anthem Blue Cross of California in May 2013. The difference between that lawsuit and this one is that the Anthem Blue Cross case only impacted clients in the state of California whereas this settlement will apply to, …individual and employer-provided health plans across the country, and allows patients the right to exercise their opt-out right for a broader range of medications by written opt-out, United’s website, and over the phone (Consumer Watchdog 3/20/2014).

The court is expected to finish its review in July 2014. They will then notify Class members of their decision and allow the opt-out process to begin. Additionally, Class members who paid more for their prescriptions due to the mail-order plan may seek reimbursement for those costs.

Download a copy of the settlement here.

The ADAP Advocacy Association welcomes the news of this settlement with United Healthcare. The reversal of United Healthcare’s decision brings less complication for patients, increased knowledge of medications, and more productive relationships between patients and their healthcare professionals.


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Canadian pharmacy said...

This is the right decision! Patients should be the right choice. Nobody has the right to impose their conditions. All four reasons have proof.