Why Isn't This Prescription Drug on My Health Plan's Drug Formulary?

A drug formulary refers to the list of drugs that a particular health insurance plan will cover. Has your doctor prescribed a drug that’s not on your health plan's drug formulary? Many people are shocked to learn their health plan has a list of drugs it will pay for (or count towards your deductible, if you have to meet it first); if your drug isn’t on that list, your health insurance won't pay for it.

Older man on the phone while holding a bottle of pills
Tim Hale Photography / Getty Images

If you’ve tried to fill a prescription only to have the pharmacy tell you that your health insurance won’t pay for it, you’re probably frustrated. It’s tempting to think, “My doctor prescribed this drug because I need it. Why does my health insurance company think it can tell my doctor what drugs I can and can’t have?”

First, understand that your health plan isn’t saying you can’t have the drug your doctor prescribed. Instead, excluding a drug from its formulary is more like saying that it won’t pay for that particular drug. You may still have it if you or someone else pays for it. It’s also possible to convince your health plan to pay for a drug that isn’t on its formulary, as there's an appeals process and you and your doctor can use if your doctor believes that none of the drug options that are on your plan's formulary will work for you.

Understanding why your health plan has chosen to keep the drug you've been prescribed off of its drug formulary will help you decide how to proceed.

Why Your Drug Isn’t on Your Health Plan Drug Formulary

Your health insurance plan’s Pharmacy & Therapeutics Committee might exclude a drug from its drug formulary a few common reasons:

  • The health plan wants you to use a different drug in that same therapeutic class.
  • The drug is available over-the-counter.
  • The drug hasn’t been approved by the U.S. FDA or is experimental.
  • The health plan has concerns about the safety or effectiveness of the drug.
  • The drug is considered a “lifestyle” drug and therefore not medically necessary. Drugs used for weight loss, erectile dysfunction, or cosmetic purposes can fall into this category.

A therapeutic class is a group of drugs that work in a similar way or treat a certain condition. Examples of therapeutic classes include antibiotics and antihistamines. A health plan may want you to use a different drug in the same therapeutic class for several reasons. One drug may have a better safety track record, fewer side effects, or be more effective than its competitor. However, the cost is the most common reason your health plan wants you to use a particular drug and leaves competing drugs off of its drug formulary.

Health plans try to save money by steering you to less expensive prescription drug options within the same therapeutic class. They may do this by demanding a higher copayment for the more expensive drug; or, they may leave the more expensive drug off of the drug formulary entirely.

In some cases, a health plan may cut a deal with the maker of an expensive drug to get the drug at a discounted rate by excluding a competing drug from its drug formulary. The health plan saves money by getting the expensive drug at a discount. The drugmaker is happy because it will get a larger share of the market for its drug if its competitor isn't on a big health plan’s drug formulary. The only parties unhappy with this type of deal are the maker of the drug that was excluded, and you if the excluded drug happens to be the one you want.

Guidelines Imposed Under the Affordable Care Act

Drug formularies continue to be an important way for insurers to manage costs and ensure that their members are utilizing effective treatment. But since prescription drugs are one of the Affordable Care Act's essential health benefits, there are some regulations that have been put in place to make sure that insurers are providing adequate prescription coverage.

Essential health benefits requirements only apply to individual and small group plans (that aren't grandfathered or grandmothered). For these plans, insurers have to make sure that their drug formularies:

And the development and maintenance of a health plan's formulary must be guided by the recommendations of a pharmacy and therapeutics committee that complies with committee requirements.

Although large group health plans are not required to cover essential health benefits and are thus not subject to these same requirements, most large group plans tend to have fairly robust coverage and drug formularies.

What if You Need a Drug That Isn't on Your Plan's Formulary?

If you and your doctor believe that you need a medication that isn't on your health plan's formulary, you can submit a formulary exception request, asking your insurer to cover the drug and documenting the reasons that other covered options won't work.

If your health plan isn't grandfathered, it's subject to the ACA's internal and external appeals requirements (this applies to large group plans too, as long as they're not grandfathered), which guarantees your access to a fair appeal if your insurer rejects your prior authorization request or denies a claim for your medication. That doesn't always mean your appeal will be successful, but the process will be fair and includes the option for an external, third-party review.

Here's more from the federal government about appealing health plans decisions, and an overview of the process for appealing a drug formulary decision if you have Medicare Part D (including a Medicare Advantage plan with integrated Part D coverage).

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. 45 CFR § 156.122 - Prescription drug benefits.

  2. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. Internal Claims and Appeals and the External Review Process Overview. January 2021.