UnitedHealth Takes on CVS, Express Scripts With Drugs Deal

  • Drug benefit unit to ease access to 90-day prescriptions
  • Tie-up provides features similar to rivals' offerings

UnitedHealth Group Inc.’s OptumRx unit struck an agreement to ease customers’ access to drugs through Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.’s drugstores, a move to help the business compete with rival pharmacy benefit managers.

Clients of OptumRx, the third-largest U.S. drug benefit manager after CVS Health Corp. and Express Scripts Holding Co., will be able to pick up 90-day prescriptions at almost 8,200 Walgreens pharmacies, rather than receiving them by mail, the companies said Thursday in a statement. Financial terms of the agreement weren’t disclosed.

The tie-up helps OptumRx keep up with similar offerings from CVS and Express Scripts, and may increase appeal to corporate clients, according to Peter Costa, an analyst at Wells Fargo & Co. OptumRx expanded in July with the acquisition of another pharmacy benefit manager, or PBM, Catamaran Corp.

“At the very least we see this announced partnership as UnitedHealth catching up to its PBM industry peers,” Costa wrote Thursday in a research note. “If priced well it could even shift the landscape such that Express Scripts would be at a disadvantage and CVS could lose its current product advantage.”

Express Scripts fell 2.5 percent to $67.54 at 1:45 p.m. in New York, while CVS gained 0.3 percent to $101.28. UnitedHealth fell 1.6 percent to $123.33. Walgreens rose 0.9 percent to $83.04.

More Customers

Unlike CVS, Walgreens doesn’t operate its own drug-benefits business. The deal with OptumRx will probably draw more customers into Walgreens stores, along with boosting drug sales, according to Ann Hynes, an analyst at Mizuho Securities.

Express Scripts probably has the most to lose during the employer-benefits selling season, which begins next month, according to Hynes. The company has a similar arrangement with Walgreens, but still tends to push customers to get their drugs by mail. 

David Whitrap, an Express Scripts spokesman, said his company’s current strategy is working.

“Our independent model has worked very well for Express Scripts,” he said. “It allows us to provide our patients more options and ensure that we’re giving them the best possible care at the best possible price.”

Patient Information

Pharmacy-benefits managers help health plans and employers manage drug benefits for their clients and workers. The companies have been increasingly working to rein in the high cost of drugs by refusing to cover some treatments entirely.

UnitedHealth’s partnership with Walgreens starts on Jan. 1. Some members with drug coverage from OptumRx may lose the option of filling their prescriptions at pharmacies other than Walgreens under the deal, though that’s up to the employer or other entity that’s making the benefits decision.

The deal will also give Walgreens pharmacists more access to information that will help them counsel patients who are on multiple drugs, aren’t getting refills or taking pills that shouldn’t be taken together, said Mark Thierer, chief executive officer of OptumRx.

The partnership “allows the pharmacist to identify large-scale gaps in care, and close them,” he said.

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