How Honeybee Health and Dr. Jessica Nouhavandi are Making Health Care Affordable
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Dr. Jessica Nouhavandi was acutely aware of the structural challenges and inequities plaguing the US health care system.
As someone who spent a decade running a small, family-owned pharmacy, she was particularly attuned to the lack of consistency, affordability, and transparency in the pharmaceutical industry.
"The fact is we have 200 million people in this country taking medications who are getting drastically different pricing depending on where they get their prescriptions filled and who their insurance provider is," Nouhavandi recently told Health. "We have a long way to go to provide consistency and transparency in the health care system and the pharmacy experience is a big part of that."
In 2017, Nouhavandi co-founded Honeybee Health, a revolutionary online pharmacy concept designed specifically to address the inequalities of prescription drug pricing. Honeybee's mission is to level the playing field for consumers by cutting the middle-men—insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers—out of the equation.
Honeybee buys medications directly from FDA-approved US wholesalers and sells them to patients via its online platform. Patients do not need health insurance in order to make a purchase.
It's a groundbreaking model that's brought consumer drug prices down by as much as 80 percent compared to traditional pharmacies. And at the time Honeybee launched, there was only one other pharmacy operating the same way—completely bypassing insurance copays and insurance requirements of any kind.
This radical approach to making prescriptions more affordable has earned Honeybee plenty of accolades over the years, including most recently from Fast Company, which included the online pharmacy among its newly-released list of the World's Most Innovative Companies for 2021. But perhaps even more notably, the value of Honeybee's cost cutting approach was made crystal clear amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions lost jobs and health insurance and struggled to buy prescription medication. Honeybee provided an affordable option for those who lacked insurance.
Read on to find out more about how Nouhavandi and Honeybee Health are revolutionizing the cost of prescription medicine and how Nouhavandi hopes to continue leveling the playing field in the health care industry.
What specifically inspired you to launch Honeybee Health—was there a particular incident or event that made you decide it was time to establish your own online pharmacy to challenge the big pharmacy system?
I'd been a pharmacist 10 years, running an independent pharmacy that accepted insurance and generally followed the traditional way of doing things. And unlike chain store pharmacists, we were able to see what the acquisition price was for medications and the big difference each customer was paying for the same exact medication. It was frustrating to realize how little we could do about that.
Even if I knew I could give a patient a better price because I knew what that medication really cost, I couldn't do that because I had to run everything through insurance.
Some people were paying $10 for their prescription versus others who were paying $90. There was no single place for people to have truth and transparency and consistency of pricing. And so that's kind of how we came up with the idea. When we first thought of starting Honeybee Health, many called us crazy for being willing to fight back against the layers of middlemen profiting off of patients.
Have you found it challenging to make consumers aware of, and comfortable with, the online pharmacy concept?
Yes, that's why we do even more on our website explaining to consumers who we are and how we got here. We are pharmacists and pharmacist technicians who have been doing this for years and years. When people are considering online pharmacies, I urge them to ask—'Who are the people running this pharmacy?' Are you going to purchase medications from people who have never done this before? Or are you going to an online pharmacist?
In addition, even though we're online, we make sure that people still get a personalized experience. For example, our pharmacists provide individualized supplement recommendations based on what prescription medications you're taking. And if customers ever have any questions about medications or their order, they can always quickly and easily reach one of us for help.
Why is this a mission you're so passionate about?
What I tell people is that you can't unsee the things I've seen. I've seen how so many people and families have simply walked away because they couldn't afford their medication. It's so sad and heartbreaking. There aren't many options in our current health care system. So I felt like someone had to step forward and say, "We have to change things."
There are very few direct pay options out there that are transparent. We will continue on our mission to provide that for people because we've seen how important it is in real life. This is really personal to us - both my partner and I have very personal experiences with family members not being able to afford medication.
Right now, we're letting people down as a system, people are not able to afford their medications. COVID exposed more of that. We need to figure out how can we get more people to be able to access safe and affordable medication.
Can you explain in a little more detail how and why operating outside the traditional health care system has allowed you to make prescription medication so affordable?
All we do is cut out the middlemen. We buy directly from distributors and sell to patients and we cut out everybody else. The problem right now with the system is there are so many hands in the pot and for every layer a medication goes through, there is a price mark-up.
We're trying to get medications at the most bare-bones cost that we can for patients. We have partnerships with FDA-approved manufacturers that allow us to do that. And the more we grow, and the more we buy from the distributors, the better prices people get because we will have the leverage to negotiate better drug prices for patients. These big chain pharmacies have a lot of leverage too, that's the truth. If we all came together and said 'We're not going to do this anymore' we could negotiate and get the affordable prices people deserve.
When we first came on the scene, there was one other company doing this. But more and more people are starting to catch on, that we don't need to operate within the same confines we've been operating within for hundreds of years.
Can you talk about why the Honeybee Health model of providing prescriptions was so important during COVID-19 outbreak?
It's all about access. I think that COVID brought that out. Once people couldn't leave their homes they starting wondering: 'What do we do?' 'Where do we go?' and 'How do we get care?' We were raising our hands saying here we are. And we did our best to show people that this is how it should be - you should be able to get the same medication you have been getting, quality medication, delivered to your door in a safe way, with the same personalized pharmacist experience and it should cost way less.
What is on the horizon for Honeybee Health? What would you like to tackle next and why?
We're very excited to continue expanding on our multi-manufacturer options. We want every single drug we list to have several options. We also want to be able to offer more controlled substances by the end of the year. In addition, we are currently licensed in 44 states and we want to expand into 50 states.
I think the most exciting thing is we are trying to partner with like-minded organizations so we can reach more people as a direct-to-consumer company. We'd love to partner with organizations that support veterans, and AARP and organizations that support women's health, which is one area where we've done a lot of advocacy work. For us it's all about doing the right thing and figuring out how to reach the people who need us.
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