Bloomberg Law
Dec. 8, 2020, 10:57 AM

States Risk Losing Power to Regulate Pharmacy Drug Middlemen

Lydia Wheeler
Lydia Wheeler

States are going to have a hard time controlling the cost of prescription drugs if the Supreme Court broadens a federal law prohibiting states from regulating employee benefit plans.

A challenge to an Arkansas law meant to protect independent pharmacies from abusive reimbursement practices of rate-setting pharmacy middlemen is testing the bounds of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. A decision striking down Arkansas’s law could cripple state efforts to control the cost of prescription drugs and other health-care services. That could lead to a flood of litigation challenging dozens of similar laws in other states, health policy experts say.

“This is really the tip of the iceberg because states are trying to control drug costs in all kinds of different ways,” said Katherine Gudiksen, a senior health policy researcher at the Source on Healthcare Price and Competition, a project of the University of California Hastings College of Law.

The case could be one of the first decided by the Supreme Court this term. Arguments were heard Oct. 6.

Drawing the Line

Arkansas’s fighting to save its law, which regulates the rates at which pharmacy benefit managers reimburse pharmacies for drugs and gives pharmacies a right to appeal the rates they set.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held the law was preempted by ERISA, which prohibits states from passing laws that reference an ERISA plan or have an impermissible connection to an ERISA plan. But Arkansas argues pharmacy reimbursement regulation is basic rate regulation, which the Supreme Court has ruled isn’t preempted by ERISA.

“It’s hard to see how a law that directly affects benefits claims processing isn’t central to ERISA plan administration,” said Stacey Cerrone, a principal in the New Orleans office of Jackson Lewis PC.

“The court is struggling on where to draw the line with preemption,” she said.

Patchwork of State Laws

A win for Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (PCMA)—the trade group for PBMs that’s aggressively fighting this law and others—would likely open the door for more legal challenges. Laws regulating PBMs have passed in 36 states.

“There’s no agency that oversees federally a pharmacy benefit manager,” said Ron Lanton, principal at Lanton Law, which helped lobby for some state PBM laws. “That’s the problem, so the states have had to come up with their own solution on how to regulate this problem.”

But PCMA argues Congress set out to create a uniform set of standards in administering ERISA plans, which include most private sector health plans. The trade group said employers will have to spend more money on administrative services and compliance, increasing the cost of care, if laws like the one in Arkansas remain.

“More than 266 million Americans rely on the prescription drug benefits PBMs administer, and now more than ever we’re committed to protecting accessible, affordable health care,” JC Scott, PCMA’s president and CEO, said in a statement after oral arguments in October.

In addition to Arkansas, PCMA has challenged laws in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Iowa in recent years.

The trade group has been successful in winning challenges in the Eighth Circuit. The appeals court ruled Iowa’s law and two North Dakota lawsare preempted by ERISA. Iowa’s law regulates how PBMs establish generic drug pricing, and requires certain disclosures on their drug pricing methodology. North Dakota’s laws regulate the fees PBMs can charge pharmacies. North Dakota officials have appealed the court’s decision to the Supreme Court.

In July, a federal judge blocked part of Oklahoma’s law. PCMA filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which it later had dismissed. The case is still playing out in the district court.

Lanton, who represents independent pharmacies, said his clients hope the Supreme Court provides some uniformity to what’s become a patchwork of state laws. He’s also hoping for a clear definition of what a pharmacy benefit manager is and isn’t.

“It comes down to this split in the court of whether or not the court sees a pharmacy benefit manager as an insurer that provides benefits or as an administrator that simply regulates reimbursement and cost.”

Market Power

The three largest PBM companies are OptumRx, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group; CVS Caremark, a subsidiary of CVS Health; and Express Scripts, a subsidiary of Cigna Corp. They control 85% of the market share for PBM services, according to the National Association of Specialty Pharmacy’s brief in support of Arkansas.

That market power gives health plans very little bargaining power, said Erin Fuse Brown, director of the Center for Law, Health and Society at Georgia State University College of Law.

PBMs say they use their size and power to negotiate discounts with the pharmaceutical manufacturers, but it’s not clear they’re passing along those savings to the health plans, she said.

The case is Rutledge v. Pharm. Care Mgmt. Ass’n, U.S., No. 18-540.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Wheeler in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at; Brent Bierman at