COLUMBIA — Walgreens could soon no longer be an option for people whose prescriptions are managed through Express Scripts — and that includes UM System employees.
Walgreens and Express Scripts have been in contract negotiations that remain contentious. On June 21, Walgreens announced the separation. As of Dec. 31, Walgreens won't be part of the Express Scripts network, according to a letter it sent out to its Express Scripts customers. The letter urges customers to talk to their human resources departments and let them know they want Walgreens to remain an option.
Express Scripts is a pharmacy benefit manager, often called a PBM. But just what is a pharmacy benefit manager?
Here's an explanation from Thom Gross, Express Scripts spokesman.
Pharmacy benefit managers were started about 25 or 30 years ago. As more drugs were introduced into the market and the cost of providing benefits to employees increased, employers brought in experts to find ways to keep costs down. Thus, pharmacy benefit managers such as Express Scripts were born.
These management companies *run mail-order pharmacies and negotiate with drug makers and retail pharmacies to provide medications at a lower rate.
Express Scripts is a pharmacy benefit manager — a company that *runs mail-order pharmacies and negotiates with drug manufacturers and retail pharmacies to keep medications affordable.
The UM System will continue using Express Scripts despite the potential loss of Walgreens, Jennifer Hollingshead, assistant director of publications and marketing for the UM System, said in a statement. But Hollingshead said she was hopeful Walgreens and Express Scripts might still reach an agreement.
Express Scripts is still open to negotiations, but Thom Gross, Express Scripts spokesman, said, “Walgreens walked out of negotiations in June.”
Gross said the central issue is price competitiveness. Express Scripts agrees to reimburse pharmacies in its network for filling prescriptions at discounted rates. Savings are passed along to Express Scripts' clients — health plan sponsors. Walgreens is the highest-priced pharmacy in the Express Scripts network and wants to charge more than other pharmacies, yet continue doing the same service, Gross said. That means Walgreens would be paid more to perform the same service other pharmacies do for less, he said.
If Express Scripts accepted Walgreens’ contract terms, the chain would be priced 20 percent higher than the rest of the pharmacies in the network by the end of the three-year contract. Express Scripts can’t allow that, Gross said.
“We think that Walgreens should be competitive with other pharmacies in the network,” he said. With Walgreens in the mix, that network includes more than 60,000 pharmacies nationwide. Without Walgreens, there are more than 56,000 pharmacies in the network.
Patients who want to continue using Walgreens after the contract ends will have to pay full price for their prescriptions. He said the best alternative is to change pharmacies.
That's a change UM employees will most likely have to make. Hollingshead said in her statement that " . . . our employees, like several hundred thousand other Missourians who use Walgreens to fill their prescriptions through Express Scripts, as well as millions more nationwide, will need to transfer their existing prescriptions to another pharmacy."
A directory search for Express Scripts-related pharmacies in the Columbia area yielded plenty of results — there were at least 20. None of them, however, are 24-hour pharmacies, like the Columbia Walgreens store at 222 E. Broadway. In fact, there aren't any 24-hour pharmacies within a 25-mile radius of Columbia that Express Scripts supports.