EP429: Following the Dollar Through Pharmacy Acronyms Like WAC, AWP, and NADAC, With Luke Slindee, PharmD
Relentless Health Value™March 07, 2024
38:2052.64 MB

EP429: Following the Dollar Through Pharmacy Acronyms Like WAC, AWP, and NADAC, With Luke Slindee, PharmD

For a full transcript of this episode, click here.

In this healthcare podcast we’re talking about pharmacy acronyms or terms like AWP and WAC, and, not really an acronym, but we’ll also talk pharmacy list prices, rebates, discounts. We also have NADAC, but that’s slightly off to the side for reasons we’ll get to in a sec.

Most of these acronyms refer to a number with a dollar sign in front of it, and it’s hell on wheels to figure out if and/or to what extent that number reflects what is going on in the real world, especially if you are a patient or a plan sponsor and all you see is the list price that Pharma puts out on one side of the storyboard, and then what the patient pays or (if you’re lucky) what the plan pays for the drug on the way other side of the whole chain of events. What’s a black box a lot of times for patients and plan sponsors is what goes on in the middle, wherein many middle people get their mitts on the transaction.

Real quick here, let’s run through the Mister Rogers’ neighborhood of all of these middle people right now; and we’re gonna do this really briefly. Most of you are already going to know most of this, but I just want to remind you so that when my guest today, Luke Slindee, and I kick into the conversation about the acronyms and the terms and we try to follow the dollar … yeah, you can put a name to a face.

Alright, so first we have pharma manufacturers. The pharma manufacturer—and this is largely gonna be true whether it’s a branded drug or a generic pharma manufacturer—but the manufacturer sets a list price. This list price is gonna be called an AWP or a WAC price, and we’re gonna get into the differences and what those terms actually mean in the show that follows.

But Pharma decides their price point. They go to wholesalers with that price. Wholesalers say they want a discount to purchase the product. Some kind of rebate or discount is negotiated. Now the wholesalers have the drug, and they get calls from pharmacies. Pharmacies have patients who have scripts for that, so the pharmacies need to buy the drug. What price does the pharmacy now pay the wholesaler for the drug?

Short answer: It’s nuts. It’s nuts how the wholesalers decide what to charge the pharmacies for the drug. We talk about that in the interview that follows, but suffice to say that now we have the list price turning into whatever price the pharmacies wound up paying to get the drug from the wholesalers for. Any way you cut it, the wholesalers are making some money.

Okay … now we get to the part where we’re figuring out how much the patient or the plan sponsor will pay to pick up that drug that started at the pharma manufacturers and went to the wholesalers and now is at the pharmacy. How much are the patients gonna pay? How much are the plan sponsors gonna pay?

If you spend any time in the real world (not the drug supply chain world), what you’d expect to happen next is that the patient would go into the pharmacy and the pharmacist would charge a markup and/or a dispensing fee on the price that they bought the drug from the wholesaler for. That’d be normal. And this can be the case when patients pay cash. Listen to the show with Mark Cuban (EP418, along with Ferrin Williams, PharmD, MBA), who started a pharmacy called Cost Plus Drugs. Get it? Their prices are cost plus. You have had other pharmacies for years doing similar things, like Blueberry in Pittsburgh. They get the drug. They buy it from a wholesaler or etc. But they buy the drug for some price, and then they sell it to their customers (ie, patients) at their cost plus.

But most of the time in pharmacy supply chain world, things don’t work that way because many patients have insurance. When a patient walks into the pharmacy, someone has to figure out how much the patient owes and how much their insurance will cover, right? So, enter PBMs (pharmacy benefit managers). They originally started out doing this math (ie, adjudicating claims), figuring out what the out-of-pocket will be for the patient and then what the insurance will cover. Then drugs started to get really expensive and a few other developments, and then, all of a sudden, we have PBMs negotiating with Pharma for how much of a rebate the PBM is going to demand for the PBM to put the manufacturer drug on formulary. The PBM also is determining how much they will pay the pharmacy for said drug on behalf of plan sponsors, in addition to doing the math for how much the patient will pay.

So, let me say that again because it kind of begs a “what now?” with eyebrows sky-high as the appropriate response to what I just said, especially if you think through the ramifications here, ramifications which I discuss at length with Vinay Patel (EP241); Benjamin Jolley, PharmD (EP422); Scott Haas (EP365); Paul Holmes (EP397); and others.

So, again, the PBM is not just adjudicating claims. They are also negotiating rebates from Pharma so plan sponsors do not have to pay the full amount that the wholesalers paid Pharma and that the pharmacies paid the wholesalers, which maybe is a lot of money. The PBMs are like, “Hey, Pharma. You need to give me a piece of your action because we, the PBM, have big market power. I serve 100 million patients or something. So, if you want access to my 100 million lives, you gotta shell it out. You gotta shell me out some rebates.”

So, fine, Pharma gives the PBM some amount of money in the form of a rebate. And it has to work that way, if you think about it, because the drug was originally sold to the wholesaler. You see what I’m saying? So, the pharma company has to give the PBMs a separate rebate amount. This is in addition to how much the PBM told the plan sponsor the plan sponsor owes for the drug, which is also paid to the PBM. But now, PBM is also still in charge of adjudicating the claim. So, they’re telling the pharmacy how much to charge the patient. Somehow or another also, the PBM also got itself in charge of deciding how much money the pharmacy itself would be reimbursed by that PBM.

In the rest of the world, the pharmacy might tell the PBM, “Hey, this is the price.” But not in pharmacy supply chain world. In pharmacy supply chain world, the PBM tells the pharmacy how much it’s gonna pay. The end.

And this, my friends, is how so often pharmacies get themselves in the pickle of having to pay the wholesaler one price to get the drug while they get reimbursed a totally different price to dispense the drug. And because independents have very little negotiating leverage on actually either side of that equation, they so very often buy high and sell low. Please listen to the shows with Benjamin Jolley (EP422) and Vinay Patel (EP241), where we get into this in a lot of detail.

But I just want to emphasize this point: All of that whole drug supply chain I just went through, where the manufacturer sells to the wholesaler who sells to the pharmacy and the PBM pays the pharmacy and the patient is paying something and the plan sponsor is paying something—many of the middleman transactions in there happen under the cover of darkness a lot of times. If I’m a plan sponsor, do I have any idea how much the PBM paid the pharmacy for any particular drug? Unless you’re good at looking at the NADAC numbers (more on this coming up), no. I do not have any idea what a fair price for that drug actually is and how much people are making on the back of that drug as it goes through the supply chain.

And this, my friends, is how come spread pricing can exist. Because spread pricing is when the PBM charges the plan sponsor more than they are paying the pharmacy, pocketing the difference, and then calling what they pocket a trade secret—even if it’s the plan sponsor whose butt is on the line to make sure that what the PBM is pocketing is fair and reasonable compensation. I mean, if only J&J had listened to this show (EP428). Here’s a link to the lawsuit, which is about J&J paying ridiculous amounts in spread pricing.

If what I just said is really confusing, I’m gonna validate that and say, “Yeah, it is really confusing.” And to a certain extent, that might be the main point. Where there’s mystery, there’s margin and all of that.

Here’s what Dawn Cornelis said on LinkedIn in response to an article about the lawsuit: “Data accessibility lies at the heart of mitigating a fiduciary lawsuit. It all begins with gaining access to your data. But let’s be clear—it’s not an easy feat. The major hurdle? Procuring accurate data from your TPA [third-party administrator]. And that’s just the first step. The subsequent challenge involves analyzing this data, a task best handled by a skilled healthcare data analyst—yet another formidable undertaking.”

The one acronym in this whole stew that is not questionable at all is the NADAC. So, let’s talk about the NADAC for a moment, the National Average Drug Acquisition Cost Price Benchmark. I was really thrilled to get Luke Slindee to be my guest today—or one reason I was so thrilled—is because Luke works for the accounting firm who, on behalf of CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) and the federal government, administers this NADAC, the National Average Drug Acquisition Cost. (Here’s a good NADAC explainer if you’re interested.)

In brief, NADAC was jointly developed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and it calculates the average price that pharmacies pay for prescription drugs. NADAC is based on a retail price survey.

My guest today, as aforementioned, is Luke Slindee. He is a second-generation pharmacist. His family owned a pharmacy in Minnesota when he was growing up. Now he is a senior pharmacy consultant for Myers and Stauffer, which is the accounting firm that calculates the NADAC Price Benchmark on behalf of CMS and the federal government.


For additional information, go to data.medicaid.gov. You can also follow Luke on LinkedIn.


Luke Slindee, PharmD, is a second-generation pharmacist with a background in independent pharmacy, chain pharmacy, data analytics, and prescription drug pricing. He currently supports public drug pricing transparency benchmarks and is an advocate for pharmacy reimbursement reform and antitrust enforcement in healthcare.


09:52 Why is it important for plan sponsors to understand the going rate for every point in the supply chain?

10:21 How do manufacturers come up with a list price?

10:40 What does AWP stand for?

10:59 What does WAC stand for?

11:06 How are AWP and WAC numbers chosen by the manufacturer?

13:22 What is the difference between AWP and WAC?

14:54 How much are wholesalers paying to manufacturers?

16:43 How much is the pharmacy paying for branded drugs from a wholesaler?

17:34 Why might pharmacies be buying drugs for less than what wholesalers are paying?

18:17 Substack article by Benjamin Jolley, PharmD, on this topic.

19:22 EP423 with Joey Dizenhouse.

20:33 Why do things get weird when a PBM gets involved?

21:58 How does all of this work for generic manufacturers?

25:20 EP344 with Steven Quimby, MD.

26:15 How did Civica Rx come about?

32:21 What’s the difference between the NADAC and the AWP value?

36:04 Luke discusses the downstream effects to pharmacies.


For additional information, go to data.medicaid.gov. You can also follow Luke on LinkedIn.


Luke Slindee discusses #followingthedollar through #WAC, #AWP & #NADAC on our #healthcarepodcast. #healthcare #podcast #digitalhealth #healthcareleadership #healthcaretransformation #healthcareinnovation


Recent past interviews:

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Julie Selesnick, Rik Renard, AJ Loiacono (Encore! EP379), Nina Lathia, Marshall Allen, Stacey Richter (INBW39), Peter Hayes, Joey Dizenhouse, Benjamin Jolley, Emily Kagan Trenchard (Encore! EP392)

AWP,Formularies,NADAC,PBMs,Pharmacy,Supply Chain,WAC,acroynms,costs,discoountss,drug,insurance,patient,