Step therapy explained: An increasingly popular tool for cost control

By Rahul Nayak

News that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will allow Medicare Advantage programs to enact “step therapy” programs for drugs under Part B as part of an effort to combat rising drug prices has been making rounds in the health policy world recently.

Step therapy is used by all major private insurers and is aimed at curbing expenditures on expensive drugs. It requires that a patient to try a less expensive alternative treatment. Those who fail treatment with the less expensive drug would then be eligible for coverage of the more expensive treatment. Note that it is very similar to prior authorization, a ubiquitous policy tool in which a drug is approved for coverage only after ensuring certain clinical criteria are met.

What was once a relatively rare tool is now commonly used. I examined UnitedHealthcare’s list of step therapy drugs and there are now over 100 listings. This is an order of magnitude increase from the number of drugs listed just four years ago, when I first got interested in this issue.

Drugs listed for step therapy tend to be either new, extremely expensive therapies (e.g., 3rd-line biologics for rheumatoid arthritis, sofosbuvir for hepatitis C) or more expensive formulations of common drugs (e.g., extended release formulation of quetiapine).

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