Drug vials The program willinitially target blindness therapy Luxturna and Zolgensma, a spinaltreatment drug and the world's most expensive rare disease drug.(Photo: Shutterstock)

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Insurance giant Cigna has made the latest move in the elaboratechess match being played out over who will pay for life-saving raredisease therapies.

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In a release, the company–which owns ExpressScripts, one of the most powerful pharmacy benefit managers–said ithas created a solution that will allow patients to access the drugsthey need at no cost to them. "Those who provide health coveragefor millions of Americans, such as employers, health plans andunions, will have the peace of mind that comes from being betterprotected against the high price shocks associated with newbreakthrough therapies," the company wrote in a statement.

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Related: New 'playbook' helps employers navigate specialtydrug costs

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The release indicated that Cigna would leverage variouscorporate entities within its health and drug empire to be able tomake the designer drugs, often costing in the millions per patient,more available and affordable to those who need them. Cigna hasdubbed its program Embarc Benefit Protection.

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However, the release was short on the details of who wouldultimately bear the cost of the therapies, or how Embarc BenefitProtection would deliver peace of mind to plan sponsors. It didpromise to protect payers "against the high price shocks associatedwith new breakthrough therapies." Provider priceshocks–unexpectedly high bills for services–has become a hot buttonamong payers.

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Cigna and others engaged in the development, distribution, andpricing of the new therapies have come under considerable pressure from all fronts to makethe drugs affordable. Consumers and consumer advocates, plansponsors, labor unions, elected officials, and the media have beenhammering away at pricing that appears to have little basis incost.

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In the release, Steve Miller, M.D., Cigna'sexecutive vice president and chief clinical officer, said,"We will deliver better care, affordability and access through thissolution. Expensive therapies for rare diseases pose a newchallenge for America's healthcare system, and this challenge willgrow as more therapies are approved by the FDA. We are leveragingour collective capabilities to deliver on the true promise ofmodern medicine. No cure should be out of reach of any patient, andthey should receive the best quality care."

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Cigna's program will initially target blindness therapy Luxturnaand Zolgensma, a spinal treatment drug and the world's mostexpensive rare disease drug. "Additional therapies may be added inthe future," the release said.

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Dan Cook

Dan Cook is a journalist and communications consultant based in Portland, OR. During his journalism career he has been a reporter and editor for a variety of media companies, including American Lawyer Media, BusinessWeek, Newhouse Newspapers, Knight-Ridder, Time Inc., and Reuters. He specializes in health care and insurance related coverage for BenefitsPRO.