Pharmacy Benefits 101

Pharmacy Benefits 101: Traditional vs. Pass-Through Models

August 8, 2022

Capital Rx

It’s no secret that pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) are under serious scrutiny when it comes to their influence on drug prices. Plan sponsors, benefits directors, et al. must have visibility into their benefits program and flexibility in plan design to ease concerns about overspending and member health. If anyone had questions about that need previously, recent regulations such as the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) address them by making it a requirement to know what “plan money” and member premiums are being spent on.

Knowing how PBMs operate is the first step to ensuring that goals are aligned. But having fiduciary responsibility makes understanding the three main PBM models and how they can impact savings opportunities, the service you’re expected to receive, and how much control you have over benefit design changes or your data more important. After all, attestations are required.

Understanding Carve-in and Carve-out Pharmacy Benefits

Before we dive into the specifics of traditional and pass-through models, it is important to understand what “carved-in” and “carved-out” mean. If pharmacy benefits are packaged with the medical carrier (i.e., health insurance), it is “carved-in,” then you have a health plan or third-party administrator (TPA) managing it. This has a major impact on the level of transparency and overall convenience that you will experience with your pharmacy benefits model.

On the other hand, if you have a benefits plan that separates the prescription drug program, then you have a carved-out model.

Traditional vs. Pass-Through Models

Traditional model

While “traditional” PBMs may not label themselves as such, this model is easy to spot. The traditional model focuses on discounts, narrow formularies, and high rebates to achieve cost savings. They typically do not charge an admin fee and are less transparent about how they make money. The contracts are complex, and how pricing is arrived at is opaque, at best. Additionally, traditional PBMs typically own and operate their mail service and specialty drug pharmacies.

Pass-through model

Pass-through PBMs claim to pass all discounts and rebates back to the plan sponsor. Plan design and contracts are more flexible because they usually generate revenue from an admin fee instead of from rebates and pharmacy transactions; however, plan sponsors should review pass-through contracts to be sure all pharmaceutical rebates and other revenue sources (e.g., manufacturer admin fees, or MAFs) are included. There could be similarities to the traditional model, as some pass-through PBMs may claim that their only source of revenue is the admin fee, but they too often own and operate mail and specialty pharmacies, which provide another source of income.

For more information on rebates, check out: Pharmacy Benefits 101: Pharmaceutical Rebates. with Ben Schuster.


Most pass-through PBMs end up operating more like a hybrid of pass-through and traditional models. For example, a PBM may only pass-through rebates from one channel, or they might only share partial pharmaceutical manufacturer-derived revenue with plan sponsors. Since transparency is severely limited, especially in carve-in models, it’s almost always unknown how much value a PBM retains.

Where does Capital Rx fit in?

We don’t. Our Single-Ledger Model™ is the first step in creating a fair and efficient market for drug pricing, simplifying the typical PBM contract, and bringing full visibility to what a PBM model should look like.

Contact us today to learn more about our Single-Ledger Model and what Capital Rx's team and technology can do for you!

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