I’ve had migraines since I was 12, but in 2015 my attacks got much worse. Without migraine-specific painkillers, my migraines make me queasy and tired, forcing me to go to bed with a freezing wet towel on my head. For the last two years, I’ve tried different medications, switched birth control pills, made lifestyle changes (less stress, more swimming, no alcohol) — to little avail. My migraines would improve for a while, but then they came back, worse than ever. Then this year, I finally discovered a treatment that works — Botox.
Botox is best known for smoothing out wrinkles, but since 2010 it’s also been used to prevent migraines. (Scientists aren’t 100 percent sure why Botox works, though it may interfere with the transmission of pain signals to the brain.) Though the 36 injections I get every three months in my forehead, skull, neck, and shoulders are painful, they’ve been a game changer. I went from 16 to 18 migraines a month to about eight. The intensity of the pain has gone down, too. The results are so good that I find myself frustrated that I spent so many years in unnecessary misery.
Recently, I discovered why I hadn’t been prescribed the Botox treatment earlier: step therapy — a policy that forces patients to try cheaper and sometimes less effective drugs before insurers will pay for more expensive treatments.
Sharona Hoffman, professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, says that step therapy is driven by a single motivator: saving costs. Hoffman, who’s written about the legal and ethical implications of step therapy, says that sometimes step therapy can have sensible outcomes, like pushing patients to take generics instead of brand-name drugs. But these policies can also keep doctors from prescribing the more expensive drugs of choice, forcing patients to take medications that are less effective or have worse side effects.
Before I could try Botox, my health insurance — Cigna — required me to try and fail at least two other meds. I tried tricyclic antidepressants, which made me groggy and turned my brain into molasses, and beta blockers, a class of drugs used for high blood pressure and heart problems. (All treatments to prevent migraines are borrowed from other conditions, except a new class of drugs that was just approved by the Food and Drug Administration.) The beta blockers worked for a few months: they slightly reduced the number of migraines and made the headaches more bearable. But late last year, the migraines became chronic again — I had more than 15 in a month. That’s when my neurologist said: “I think it’s time to try Botox.”
Michael Pucci, a spokesperson for Cigna, tells The Verge in an email that the “treatment of chronic migraines, including the use of Botox, are determined by individuals and their health care providers. The cost of treatment depends on the Cigna customer’s health plan design.”
I was lucky. My health insurance only required me to try and fail two other less expensive migraine medications, and it didn’t dictate how long I had to try them for before giving up. Other insurers have stricter rules: Aetna, for example, requires patients to try at least three medications for at least two months each. HealthPartners also requires patients to try and fail three medications, such as beta blockers and antidepressants, without specifying for how long. (Requirements may vary by state and policy.) Because these migraine drugs are designed to treat other conditions like high blood pressure and depression, they can have serious side effects like weight gain, fatigue, and difficulty in thinking and speaking clearly.
Sometimes, because of these policies, patients are put on meds that are not approved by the FDA for the treatment of migraines, like the antidepressant amitriptyline and the high blood pressure drug verapamil. “In my experience, [verapamil is] not very effective,” says Elizabeth Loder, chief of the headache division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the former president of the American Headache Society. For the insurance companies, that doesn’t seem to matter. “It’s frustrating to patients, especially when it seems like some of the treatments that they’re required to try have a lot of side effects and haven’t really been tested that carefully for migraines.”
Both Aetna and HealthPartners tell The Verge in an email that they don’t require patients to try verapamil specifically. “Verapamil is just one of many options available to treat migraines. Some are FDA-approved, others are not,” says Becca Johnson, a spokesperson for HealthPartners. Patients are required to try other oral medications because they’re either cheaper or not as invasive as getting Botox injections. “The rationale is that these medications are generally effective and safe,” says Ethan Slavin, a spokesperson for Aetna.
But for some conditions, step therapy can be downright harmful. In a 2016 op-ed in The Boston Globe, a patient with ulcerative colitis wrote that his health insurance forced him to try a cheaper treatment for six months, instead of the pricier meds his doctor wanted to prescribe. In those six months, his colon deteriorated so badly it had to be removed.
After Hoffman’s husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at 55, his health insurance decided to stop paying for the drug he had taken successfully unless he tried cheaper alternatives. She appealed on behalf of her husband and was eventually able to get approval for the drug, which would have cost them $8,000 a year otherwise. “I felt terrible and I had to fight and it took a long time,” Hoffman tells The Verge. “It caused a lot of anxiety and a lot of these patients don’t have a law professor wife to fight for them.”
Hoffman’s husband’s experience is not unusual. Once a patient gets the more expensive prescription, health insurance providers can still try and push them back to cheaper drugs. Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Loder says that most health insurance companies stop paying for Botox if it’s not reducing a patient’s migraines by at least 50 percent. “It’s important to keep careful headache diaries and keep careful notes in order to be able to prove to the insurance company that the treatment is worth it,” Loder says. “You’re not home free once they approve it.”
I had no idea my health insurance could take Botox away from me. I checked Cigna’s policy and found out that in order to continue receiving Botox coverage after one year, I need to get at least seven fewer migraine days — or at least 100 fewer migraine hours — per month compared to pre-Botox treatments. (I keep a diary to record when I have migraines.) Worse still, if I were to change my job — and therefore change my health insurance — my new insurance could ask me to run through the cheap medication gauntlet again before covering Botox.
Step therapy is largely unregulated both at the state and federal level, though individual states have started to pass legislation to limit step therapy and protect patients: 19 US states, including California, Mississippi, and Illinois, have laws that require insurance companies to grant certain exemptions or to review appeals from doctors within 72 hours so patients can get a waiver. But even then, getting a waiver isn’t always easy.
“Your doctor still has to be willing to do the work of filing a waiver and they don’t get reimbursed for that work, so they don’t like to do it,” Hoffman says. Plus, there’s a federal law called ERISA that exempts certain types of employer-provided health plans, called self-funded plans, from the requirements of state laws. So, for roughly a quarter of Americans who have these health plans, the state limitations to step therapy don’t apply.
Pharmaceutical companies are not without blame. One reason why insurers impose step therapy is high drug prices. Botox, which is made from the toxin of certain bacteria, is much more expensive than other migraine treatments like beta blockers, which are available as generics. Botox costs about $4,800 a year, but with injection fees, treatment can cost up to $10,000 a year. “They could lower the price,” says Loder. “Their goal is to maximize return on investment for their stockholders. That’s not the same thing as maximizing benefits for patients, unfortunately.”
“We don’t believe Botox is expensive when you look at the value that we provide,” says Marc Forth, senior vice president of US marketing at Allergan, the maker of Botox. Botox halves migraine days in 50 percent of patients who get the injections, Forth says. “We believe that value is worth the tradeoff.” Allergan doesn’t have a say on step therapy policies. Insurers “ultimately make that call on their own,” Forth says.
It’s not just about Botox, though. Last month, the FDA approved the first migraine-specific drug to prevent the severe headaches. Called Aimovig, the injectable med will cost $6,900 a year, according to The New York Times, plus injection fees. Because of the high costs, experts expect the new drug to be subject to step therapy policies. Stephen Silberstein, the director of the headache center at Jefferson University, told me in 2016 that he wouldn’t be surprised if insurance companies required patients to even try and fail Botox before covering the new meds (there are a few of them under development).
Last time I went in for my Botox treatment, my doctor asked me if I wanted to try Aimovig. Amgen and Novartis, the two manufacturers, were offering two free injections before I could access the drug through my health insurance. I declined. I didn’t want to start a new treatment that I’ll likely be booted from in a few months because of how expensive it is. Plus, the Botox is working great. I just wish I could have gotten it when I first went to see a migraine specialist, two and half years ago.