Not everybody reads the legal notices inside the Ottumwa Courier. But in January, Iowa pharmacist Mark Frahm noticed something unusual in the paper.
For years, Frahm’s South Side Drug bought pills from distributors, and dispensed prescriptions to the Wapello County jail. In turn, the pharmacy got reimbursed for the drugs by CVS Health Corp., which managed the county’s drug benefits plan.
As he compared the newspaper notice with his own records, and then with the county’s, Frahm saw that for a bottle of generic antipsychotic pills, CVS had billed Wapello County $198.22. But South Side Drug was reimbursed just $5.73.
So why was CVS charging almost $200 for a bottle of pills that it told the pharmacy was worth less than $6? And what was the company doing with the other $192.49?
Frahm had stumbled across what’s known as spread pricing, where companies like CVS mark up—sometimes dramatically—the difference between the amount they reimburse pharmacies for a drug and the amount they charge their clients.
It’s where pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) like CVS make a part of their profit. But Frahm says he didn’t think the spread could be thousands of percent.
“Middlemen have to make some money, but we didn’t expect it to be this extreme,” said Frahm, who said his pharmacy lost money in the jail account last year because CVS paid so little. “We figured everyone was playing fair.”
How Spread Pricing Works