Medicare drug plans will dramatically increase coverage of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in 2007 based on new guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

In creating Medicare Part D, the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) excluded OTCs from coverage. Taxpayer dollars could not be used to pay for OTC products even when clinically appropriate and cost effective. This was in sharp contrast to pharmacy benefit designs common in commercial coverage and Medicaid, where employers, states, health plans, and PBMs try to take advantage of new, inexpensive OTC alternatives to popular prescription drugs.

For 2006, CMS allowed Medicare prescription drug plans (PDPs) and Medicare Advantage drug plans (MA-PDs) to cover OTCs under narrow circumstances. For example, OTC coverage was limited to federally approved step therapy programs, with no prior authorization for the OTC. To pay for OTC products, drug plans must use administrative dollars and not federal benefit dollars.

For 2007, CMS is loosening restrictions on PDP and MA-PD coverage of safe, effective over-the-counter drugs that are less expensive than prescription alternatives in the plan’s formulary. Medicare drug plans must still use administrative dollars because of the statutory limit. However, OTC products may be covered outside of a step therapy program. To ensure Part D enrollees have continued access to prescription versions, drug plans that decide to cover OTCs outside a federally-approval step therapy protocol may not use prior authorization or other tools to require OTC use before a formulary legend drug is covered. Plans must also educate enrollees on differences between the prescription and non-prescription available for a given need.

Compared to their prescription alternatives, OTCs often represent savings of 60-70 percent or more. Seniors tend to be heavy users of proton pump inhibitors (PPI), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and antihistamines – categories with low-cost OTC alternatives likely appropriate for many patients. Therefore, next year many Medicare drug plans will likely offer free OTCs to drive utilization, reduce costs, ease the doughnut hole, and improve enrollee satisfaction and retention.

In addition to reducing costs for drug plans and many beneficiaries, wider access to OTCs in Part D may also reduce state Medicaid spending. Under MMA, 6 million dual eligibles were moved from Medicaid to Medicare for purposes of most drug coverage. However, Medicaid drug coverage is broader than Medicare Part D in many states. To save dollars, most states cover some OTCs. If a state Medicaid program covers an OTC for one group of Medicaid recipients, federal law requires the state to cover the OTC for all, including dual eligibles. The continued overlap of Medicare and Medicaid drug coverage for duals creates opportunities for confusion, cost shifting, even gaming. But the new OTC coverage options in Part D should allow states to save some Medicaid pharmacy dollars – provided CMS is proactive in working cooperatively with states, drug plans, and pharmacies on the issue.

While drug plans and beneficiaries will win – and states may win – from the new OTC coverage guidance, pharmacies will lose because of lower product and dispensing fee revenue. Some pharmaceutical manufacturers will also lose, notably those prescription drug makers facing competing OTCs in hot categories like proton pump inhibitors.