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A small group of medical experts quietly advise U.S. health insurers on new drugs. These relatively unknown expert committees have been involved in drug coverage decisions for decades. Their members’ identities are kept secret due to federal regulations aimed at preventing pharmaceutical industry interference.

But, according to Reuters Health, their power has grown more recently with the consolidation of most of the U.S. pharmacy benefits business under OptumRx, CVS and Express Scripts. Taken together, their three advisory committees now guide drug coverage for more than 90 million Americans.

Pharmacy and therapeutics (P&T) committees also hold sway over record numbers of novel and expensive medicines introduced into the U.S. market each year, more often with less evidence of effectiveness or safety than in the past.

New drugs that may fall under their scrutiny in the next year include potentially life-saving therapies for spinal muscular atrophy and Duchenne muscular dystrophy as well as oral treatments for migraine, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Their decisions have new consequences as the pharmacy benefits companies they advise are more likely to exclude a new treatment from coverage if it is deemed on par with existing therapies. Or they can demand discounts – or rebates – from drugmakers in exchange for the coverage.

“If the committee says (a treatment) is no better than the existing drug, there is a very decent possibility that it might get a less preferred status or not be included” for reimbursement, said Jack Hoadley, a health policy expert at Georgetown University.

Market and regulatory changes in the last 10 years, as well as the Affordable Care Act, have resulted in significant modifications to health care delivery models. Traditionally, P&T committees limited the impact of their decisions to the populations associated with their hospital or health plan/

However, as hospitals have begun to transform into larger health systems and even integrated payer organizations, P&T committees must consider both inpatient and outpatient needs of patients in multiple hospitals and ambulatory care settings.

The function of the P&T committee has not necessarily changed, but its scope has expanded. Considerations of quality, cost (reimbursement), and access (accreditation) affecting P&T committees over the past decade will become even more important as new drugs and biotech therapies enter the market and the shortage of primary care physicians intensifies.

Pharmacists, physical therapists, nurses, and physicians are assuming new leadership responsibilities, making them partners with P&T committees in improving clinical care and cost performance for health systems.