Variation in health plan coverage of ESAs for anemia due to chronic kidney disease

Date: September 10, 2021
Journal: Journal of Managed Care + Specialty Pharmacy
Citation: Margaretos NM, Panzer AD, Lai RC, Sanon M, Michalopoulos E, Redmond A, Moghadam R, Chambers JD. Variation in health plan coverage of ESAs for anemia due to chronic kidney disease, J Manag Care Spec Pharm, 2021 Sep;27(9):1221-1229



Because health plans each issue their own policies, drug coverage can vary. This variation can result in patients having unequal access to treatment. In this study, we evaluate commercial health plans’ coverage policies for erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs) for patients with anemia resulting from chronic kidney disease (CKD).


To assess how a set of US commercial health plans cover ESAs for patients with anemia due to CKD. Our second objective was to examine the evidence that the plans reviewed when formulating their coverage policies.


We used the Tufts Medical Center Specialty Drug and Evidence and Coverage Database to identify coverage policies issued by 17 of the largest US commercial health plans for ESAs. The following drugs were indicated for anemia due to CKD: darbepoetin alfa, methoxy polyethylene glycol-epoetin beta, epoetin alfa (available as two brands), and epoetin alfa-epbx. Coverage policies were current as of May 2019. We determined whether the health plans applied any restrictions, such as step therapy protocols or patient subgroup restrictions, in their coverage policies. We categorized the evidence that plans cited to support their policies into seven categories: randomized controlled trials (RCTs), real-world evidence (RWE) studies (studies based on data collected in a real-world setting), other clinical studies (eg, single arm trials), systematic reviews and/or meta-analyses, clinical or treatment guidelines, health technology assessments, and economic evaluations.


We categorized 72.5% of coverage policies (58/80 policies) as equivalent to the FDA label and 27.5% (22/80 policies) as more restrictive. In restricted policies, plans most often applied step therapy protocols (18/22 policies), followed by prescriber requirements (4/22 policies), and patient subgroup restrictions (3/22 policies). Five health plans applied restrictions in at least half of their coverage policies; seven plans did not apply restrictions in any policy. Plans that cited evidence reviewed an average of 10 citations across their ESA coverage policies, ranging from one to 29 studies. Plans varied with respect to the types of cited studies: at least 50% of evidence cited by five health plans was RCTs, while half or more of the evidence cited by four health plans was clinical or treatment guidelines.


Health plans varied in how they covered ESAs for patients with anemia due to CKD and in the evidence cited in their coverage policies. Inconsistencies in plans’ coverage policies may have implications for patients’ access to ESAs.

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