Medicare beneficiaries in Special Needs Plans (SNPs) have higher Part D prescription drug utilization and costs than enrollees in other Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug Plans (MA-PDs) do. This is no surprise since, by design, Special Needs Plans serve higher-risk Medicare patients, including many dual eligibles. However, despite higher drug utilization rates in SNPs, SNP enrollees and other MA-PD enrollees have similar rates of inappropriate drug pairs (therapeutic duplications and drug-drug interactions).

Compared to enrollees in other (non-SNP) Medicare Advantage drug plans, SNP enrollees fill 11% more scripts. The average annual prescription cost per SNP beneficiary is 49% higher compared to that of other MA-PD beneficiaries. The difference in per capita drug costs between SNPs and other MA-PDs appears due to a combination of factors: SNP beneficiaries’ higher utilization, use of costlier drugs, lower utilization of 90-day prescriptions, and SNPs paying more for some highly utilized drugs.

While SNP beneficiaries fill more prescriptions on average than other MA-PD beneficiaries, SNP and other MA-PD beneficiaries are exposed to potentially inappropriate drug pairs at similar frequencies. However, at higher levels of drug utilization, SNP beneficiaries are less likely to be exposed to a potentially inappropriate drug pair than other MA-PD beneficiaries.

Most inappropriate drug pairs (65%) in SNPs and MA-PDs are drug-drug interactions. Of these, 83% presented a moderate risk and 17% a serious or severe risk of an adverse drug event. The remaining potentially inappropriate drug pairs (35%) are therapeutic duplications. The majority of inappropriate drug pairings – in both SNPs and other MA-PDs – recur and involve drugs prescribed by the same physician and filled by the same pharmacy.

These findings, from a new analysis of 2006 data by the HHS OIG, provide further evidence for the urgent need of e-prescribing nationwide. There is also a need for genuine medication therapy management programs and more information and decision support tools for physicians and pharmacists – as well as sharpened accountability for those relatively small number of prescribers and dispensers who apparently generate the majority of potentially dangerous drug pairings.