The Intersection of Employee Wellness & Pharmacy Costs
According to Pharmacy Times, between July 2021 and July 2022, more than 1,200 medications had a price increase that surpassed the inflation rate during that time of 8.5%, with the average increase across these drugs coming to a staggering 31.6%. Overall prescription drug spending is projected to rise at an average annual rate of 6.1% through 2027.
Why are we seeing this uptick? An aging population, healthcare services costs, and administrative costs (e.g., financial transactions and patient services) are likely partly to blame. There are a range of strategies and tactics to help combat rising pharmacy costs within your benefits program, but it is important to understand what is driving these costs both globally and specifically within your organization. There is much talk about the skyrocketing costs of specialty medications. Specialty medications are now responsible for over 50% of total pharmacy costs, yet only about 2% of the population is using them.1 Unfortunately, a significant portion of pharmacy spend is going towards innovative and/or targeted therapies that treat rare, complex, genetic or inherited diseases, and cancer – all of which are usually beyond our control.
Preventing the Preventable
On the other hand, however, there are several behaviors that have a strong influence on health outcomes: tobacco use, alcohol consumption, physical activity, and diet.6 A direct correlation between cigarette smoking and the risk of heart disease has been shown and it is in fact the single most important modifiable risk factor for heart disease. Cigarette smoking has also been linked to certain cancers, which is the second leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, 16 million Americans have at least one disease caused by smoking, costing over $240 billion in healthcare costs annually.1
Obesity has been linked to multiple chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and musculoskeletal conditions impacting bone health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that obesity adds another $173 billion worth of burden on the healthcare system per year because of resulting complications. Several studies have documented the adverse cardiovascular health effects that plague overweight adults. This is partly because obesity adds increased demands on the heart to supply blood to the body. Excess body weight and obesity are linked with an increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Losing as little as 5 to 10 pounds can make a significant difference in your risks. Even if weight control has been a lifelong challenge, taking small steps today can go a long way.2
Diet and physical activity are behaviors that directly influence weight. However, they may also have direct effects on diseases.
- The brains of middle-aged adults may be aging prematurely if they have obesity or other factors linked to cardiovascular disease.
- Almost 25% of adults have metabolic syndrome, a set of factors that in combination significantly increase a person’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other illnesses. Research has shown that people who have two or more of these conditions have even higher risks of heart disease.
Wellness interventions provide an opportunity for us to have some control over the healthiness of our workforce. These interventions play an important role in moving the needle by working to solve for the root causes at play. Employers should be incentivized to implement these preventative programs not only because wellness programs are considered as “nice perks” that increase employee morale and productivity, but also and more importantly, they are tangible solutions that can reduce the burden of health and pharmacy costs. If less employees need prescription drugs in the first place, pharmacy spending could decrease dramatically. Seems easy, right?
Let’s Get Tangible: Wellness for Outcomes
The higher the risk factor prevalence within a population, the greater healthcare costs are likely to be, both within the pharmacy realm and overall. Therefore, wellness initiatives targeted towards combatting, reducing, or preventing these risk factors will have a more tangible impact on reducing costs and improving health outcomes.
A Targeted Approach
There are six key lifestyle behaviors that promote a long and heathy life3:
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating a healthy diet, full of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and reduced sodium
- Being physically active for at least 30 minutes a day
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Avoiding tobacco use and exposure
- Limiting alcohol consumption
The goal is to reduce the need for prescription medication by stopping problems before they even exist. In a study of 55,000 people, those who made healthy lifestyle choices such as avoiding smoking, eating healthy, and exercising lowered their heart disease risk by about 50%.4 In fact, unhealthy lifestyle behaviors such as those that oppose those listed above cause approximately 70-90% of chronic diseases, which yield up to 75% of total healthcare spend in the U.S.5 As such, when it comes to medical and pharmacy costs, the most successful wellness programs will be those aimed at those six pillars and affecting long-lasting behavioral changes.
Wellness Point Solutions
The good news is, the wellness industry awakened with this realization a decade or so ago, in the midst of out-of-control healthcare costs, and now there are a plethora of wellness companies and tools available for employers to leverage. In fact, in the U.S., the wellness industry represents $1.2 trillion in revenue6. Homing in on the six behaviors above, employers might consider the following*:
- Tools like Foodsmart and Noom are focused on forming healthy eating habits and ensuring a well-balanced diet.
- Pivot and Wellable are some of the tools available aimed at smoking cessation.
- Employers can take advantage of services like Vantage Fit and MoveSpring that help employees with fitness and movement goals.
- Drinkaware can assist employees in understanding and lessening alcohol consumption, while Virgin Pulse has a more overarching suite of wellbeing services.
- Mental health has been at the forefront of workplace wellness conversations for some time now, and tools like Headspace and Kona offer stress mitigation techniques and alert managers to burnout warning signs. A healthier mind leads to more and better sleep.
- Weight Watchers and incentaHEALTH are geared toward weight management.
A range of wellness point solutions are out there, and the all-encompassing ones will have tools pointed toward all six of our wellness pillars. Additionally, larger employers have started to introduce onsite health clinics and resources to make employee engagement in their health more convenient. Some incentivize through walking or step challenges. Health plans build in wellness incentives such as reimbursements for gym memberships. Whatever it looks like, introducing preventative measures that lessen the prevalence of disease and poor health outcomes; reduce the need for prescription drugs, lost work days, and absence from work; and improve mental health; can lessen overall healthcare costs and prove advantageous for your workforce.
Before you make any decisions around wellness solutions, be sure to understand what is driving your pharmacy spend within your own organization. We recommend working with a consultant or actuary to take an unbiased and robust view of your data. Better yet, consider taking the next step to…
Work With a Clinical Pharmacist
Even the best wellness programs cannot prevent or reverse existing and/or genetic health problems within a workforce population, and there are times when prescription medications are necessary. Typically, a clinical pharmacist is not part of your health benefits team, weighing in on strategy and dissecting the needs of your workforce population. I firmly believe this is both a gap and an opportunity.
An experienced clinical pharmacist can look at the full array of options available through a different lens, putting all the pieces together (medical, Rx, wellness, etc.) and provide targeted recommendations to improve outcomes while controlling costs.
Another important role of a clinical pharmacist is the ability to recognize signs of medication non-adherence, which can cause disease progression and adverse outcomes. If your organization is spending money on prescription drugs that are not being taken correctly and therefore cannot have the intended effect(s), a pharmacist can flag that up.
Get in Touch
When it comes to healthcare and pharmacy costs, many of the factors involved are out of our hands. However, we do have some power to affect change and take control through preventative, wellness, and innovative and targeted pharmacy solutions. Given the current climate, why wouldn’t we aim to do so?
If you need assistance assessing your current wellness programs, navigating the marketplace of vendor solutions, conducting a Request for Proposal (RFP), auditing your pharmacy benefits contract terms and utilization data, or are interested in leveraging a clinical pharmacist to yield customized and impactful results, our team would love to chat with you.