PODCAST: Overtreated–Shannon Brownlee explains all

Overtreated is a marvelous new book by Shannon Brownlee. Shannon is a former US News & World Report health reporter, and now is a Fellow at the New America Foundation (that’s the centrist third way Clintonite Dem one). In the book she’s essentially trying to channel Jack Wennberg for the masses, and you all know how important that is.

I spoke to her about the book, changing the perception about what Americans think about the power of medicine, and how journalists haven’t got much chance of changing what they write about health. It was a great conversation.

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  1. Coruption Happening Twice
    Recently, you may have heard or read in mass media sources about the issue of pharmacy benefit managers who have clients that are prescribed biologic medications and then are required to pay a great deal of money for such meds due to the placement of these meds on their PBMs. This is due to their status on the PBM, which is known as Tier 4 status, which requires patients to pay higher co-pays for these meds. Tier 4, which also includes lifestyle meds, is determined by the PBM based on variables such as rebates and discounts from the manufacturer, which are intended to be passed on to the PBM clients. However, in some cases, the PBMs fail to do this, and have been penalized for their self-interest above patient interest as required when this activity is discovered. Regardless, because of the tier 4 status of biologics, very sick patients have to pay a great deal of money for these meds. PBMs, by the way, are pharmacy benefit managers created for the pharmaceutical needs of employees normally and is a benefit along with their insurance through their employer.
    First of all, biologic meds are specialty meds created differently than other typical meds, and therefore are have a unique molecular complexity that are designed for serious illnesses such as anemia or multiple sclerosis. Because of their uniqueness and exclusivity, they are very expensive- costing thousands a month for the payers. In addition, generics are not authorized to be produced as of yet for these types of meds. Their cost of these biological meds is contributed more for the complex process of their creation, as the material costs are typically less expensive than traditional molecular medications.
    Biologics began to be used primarily in the 1980s and now presently make over 60 billion a year, with about 20 percent growth in this market annually. With anemia patients, oncology and dialysis clinics are targets for such meds in this category, as anemia is associated with their treatment and conditions for such diseases.
    Yet, some claim that biologic meds benefit patients to only a certain degree, as they extend life of such patients, such as those on chemotherapy or dialysis, by only a few months, so the high cost of the meds is questionable and has been analyzed by others, yet no substitutes exist for biologics, so that’s why the producers of these drugs can charge so much for these products. Efficacy of these biologic meds have also been questioned as well in other treatment aspects aside from life extension.
    Then there is the issue of fraud with kickbacks and overuse of some of the biologic meds used to treat anemia in dialysis clinics in particular. On a few occasions, doctors and clinics have been penalized for overusing the meds and for kickbacks in the form of discounts of the manufacturers. Ironically, the dialysis process was never patented, yet the many centers that exist have proven to be very profitable, more for some than others. An example is the situations where dialysis doctors, called nephrologists, have been accused of over-dosing patients with biologic meds to increase their income through their discount arrangement through the manufacturer of such meds, such as those biologics for anemia, and this arrangement is being investigated by regulators and encouraged by the representatives of such meds.
    Presently, there are many that approach the FDA to aggressively insist that generic biologics be allowed into the market for the benefit of these critically ill patients, and this would be of great benefit for such patients, and this can be done, as far as the generic creation of these meds. And this situation illustrates one of many flaws in the U.S. Health Care System- when the sickest have to complicate their illnesses by possible financial stress, such as the case with biologic meds. Relief is needed, and should be demanded by the public. After all, why be so sick, and then be financially burdened?
    “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” —- Alexander Pope

  2. Just finished reading “Overtreated”. Totally agree, we are way to focused on acute episodic care and way to much in our last 12-6 months of life. The lack of coordination and commitment by individual physicians and the clinics/hospitals must be corrected. Ms. Brownlee, well done…I see this every day as a CEO for a health care network.

  3. I heards Shannon Brownlee interviewed on NPR. Here is another example of what can happen to a patient who defers too much to a particular doctor or test involving a course of treatment. My wife had severe pain in an area of her stomach. A CT scan was ordered and the radiologist reported back that she had an intussuception which is a telescoping of the intestine into itself which causes a blockage. This is a highly unusual condition in adults by the way. We consulted a solo practicng general surgeon and brought the film with us and he confirmed said that surgery was required. I asked if it could be done lapascopically and he said, “No”. We decided to see another surgeon who had advanced training in minimally invasive surgery techiques who operated on her and determined she did not have an intussuception but rather an adhesion on the stomach wall from a surgery several years before that was twisting her bowel around. She went home that day. If the first surgeon did the surgery she would been opened up and her recovery and the cost of her care and the potential side effects would have been exponentially greater. Now multiply this one incident times the number of misdiagnoses made every day throughout this country and you realizes why the health care system is not serving the American population as well as it could be.

  4. As a cancer patient, I would like to know more about “breast cancer cure” as referenced in Oprah’s magazine.