By BRIAN KLEPPER
In a recent essay, VIVIO Health’s CEO Pramod John guides us through four sensible drug policy changes and supporting rationales that could make drug pricing much fairer. Reading through it, one is struck by the magnitude of the drug manufacturing industry’s influence over policy, profoundly benefiting that sector at the deep expense of American purchasers. As Mr. John points out, the U.S. has the world’s only unregulated market for drug pricing. We have created a safe harbor provision that allows and protects unnecessary intermediaries like pharmacy benefit managers. We have created mechanisms that use taxpayer dollars to fund drug discovery, but then funnel the financial benefit exclusively to commercial interests. And we have tolerated distorted definitions of value – defined in terms that most benefit the drug manufacturers – that now dominate our pricing discussions.
The power of this maneuvering is clear in statistics on health industry revenues and earnings. An Axios analysis of financial documents from 112 publicly traded health care companies during the 3rd quarter of 2018 showed global profits of $50 billion on revenues of $636 billion. Half of that profit was controlled by 10 companies, 9 of which were pharmaceutical firms. Drug companies collected 23% of the total revenues during that quarter, but retained an astounding 63% of the profits, meaning that the drug sector accounts for nearly two-thirds of the entire health care industry’s profitability. Said another way, the drug industry reaps twice the profits of the rest of the industry combined.
By MARY SCOTT NABERS
The United States ranks number one in the world for health care spending as a percentage of GDP. That sounds great… but, for instance, Texas ranks only 11th worldwide when it comes to performance. That’s because of access to care.
The country’s health care rankings are likely to get worse as 673 rural hospitals in the U.S. are at risk of closing. Here’s what has happened: the need for care greatly outpaces available funding, especially for public hospitals. Something must be done.
If public funding is no longer available, alternative funding can be secured in numerous ways. The simplest way to access alternative funding is through a public-private partnership (P3) engagement. However, alternative funding for public hospitals, health care clinics and university medical centers can be found from other sources as well. Finding funding is not a problem when private-sector investors, large equity funds, pension programs, asset recycling and EB5 programs all stand ready to invest in public-sector projects.
Moving to a P3 health care model would allow hospitals to secure immediate funding and utilize private-sector expertise and best practices while transferring all risks. The launch of health care P3s would also ensure new construction, new jobs and hundreds of additional health care options for people.
But ACOs could pave the way for more significant cost-cutting based on competition.
By KEN TERRY
The Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), it was revealed recently, achieved a net savings of $314 million in 2017. Although laudable, this victory represents a rounding error on what Medicare spent in 2017 and is far less than the growth in Medicare spending for that year. It also follows two years of net losses for the MSSP, so it’s clearly way too soon for anyone to claim that the program is a success.
The same is true of accountable care organizations (ACOs). About a third of the 472 ACOs in the MSSP received a total of $780 million in shared savings from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in 2017 out of the program’s gross savings of nearly $1.1 billion. The other MSSP ACOs received nothing, either because they didn’t save money or because their savings were insufficient to qualify them for bonuses. It is not known how many of the 838 ACOs that contracted with CMS and/or commercial insurers in 2016 cut health spending or by how much. What is known is that organizations that take financial risk have a greater incentive to cut costs than those that don’t. Less than one in five MSSP participants are doing so today, but half of all ACOs have at least one contract that includes downside risk.
As ACOS gain more experience and expand into financial risk, it is possible they will have a bigger impact. In fact, the ACOs that received MSSP bonuses in 2017 tended to be those that had participated in the program longer—an indication that experience does make a difference.
However, ACOs on their own will never be the silver bullet that finally kills out-of-control health spending. To begin with, 58 percent of ACOs are led by or include hospitals, which have no real incentive to cut payers’ costs. Even if some hospitals receive a share of savings from the MSSP and/or private insurers, that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of revenue they can generate by filling beds instead of emptying them. So it’s not surprising that physician-led ACOs are usually more profitable than those helmed by hospitals.
By DAVID SHAYWITZ MD
At long last, we seem to be on the threshold of departing the earliest phases of AI, defined by the always tedious “will AI replace doctors/drug developers/occupation X?” discussion, and are poised to enter the more considered conversation of “Where will AI be useful?” and “What are the key barriers to implementation?”
As I’ve watched this evolution in both drug discovery and medicine, I’ve come to appreciate that in addition to the many technical barriers often considered, there’s a critical conceptual barrier as well – the threat some AI-based approaches can pose to our “explanatory models” (a construct developed by physician-anthropologist Arthur Kleinman, and nicely explained by Dr. Namratha Kandula here): our need to ground so much of our thinking in models that mechanistically connect tangible observation and outcome. In contrast, AI relates often imperceptible observations to outcome in a fashion that’s unapologetically oblivious to mechanism, which challenges physicians and drug developers by explicitly severing utility from foundational scientific understanding.
“I don’t know that what they’re doing is going to be as transformative as maybe the potential of it is – and it’s going to take time. I don’t know that they’re going to ‘all-of-a-sudden’ leap frog over all the things that health plans have been doing for decades. I think they’re going to learn that this is really complicated stuff…”
Health plan innovation got a makeover this year. What used to look like value-based care models and telehealth visits has transformed. Health plan innovation is sexier – with big-dollar M&A deals like CVS-Aetna and Cigna-ExpressScripts looking to flatten the industry. Meanwhile, brand name collaborations like Amazon-Berkshire Hathaway-JP Morgan may prove that payment model innovation is unexpectedly ‘label-conscious.’
So, how are health plans dealing with this startling new look? And what should health tech startups who want their innovation investment dollars do now??
By BISHAL GYAWALI MD
Me-too deja vu
I read the report of a phase 3 RCT of a “new” breast cancer drug but I had the feeling that I had already read this before. Later I realized that this was indeed a new trial of a new drug, but that I had read a very similar report of a very similar drug with very similar results and conclusions. This new drug is a PARP inhibitor called talazoparib and the deja vu was related to another PARP inhibitor drug called olaparib tested in the same patient population of advanced breast cancer patients with a BRCA mutation. The control arms were the same: physician choice of drug, except that physicians couldn’t choose the one drug that is probably most effective in this patient population (carboplatin). The results were nearly the same: these drugs improved progression-free survival, but didn’t improve overall survival. In another commentary, I had raised some questions on the choice of control arm, endpoint and quality of data about the olaparib trial when it was published last year. This current talazoparib trial is so similar to the olaparib trial that you can literally replace the word “olaparib” with “talazoparib” in that commentary and all statements will stay valid.
The oncology version of half-full, half-empty glass
The PARP inhibitors olaparib and niraparib are also approved in ovarian cancer based on improvement in progression-free survival (PFS), without improving overall survival (OS). If a drug doesn’t improve OS but improves only PFS, it should also improve quality of life to justify its use. According to two new reports, these drugs do not appear to improve quality of life. The niraparibtrial reported that the patients were able to “maintain” their quality of life during treatment while the olaparib trial reported that olaparib did not have a “significant detrimental effect” on quality of life. I find it remarkable that a drug that isn’t proven to improve survival is lauded for not significantly worsening quality of life … at $10,000 a month!
It is also important to recognize that these drugs were tested as maintenance therapy against placebos. For “maintenance therapies,” as explained in this paper, improving PFS alone is not an important endpoint. That’s why I am also not excited about this new trial of sorafenib maintenance in ovarian cancer. A drug has to be very ineffective to fail to improve even PFS as a maintenance therapy against placebo.
By REBECCA FOGG
In the run-up up to this month’s mid-term elections, health care appears to be just one of many burning political issues that will be influencing Americans’ votes. But delve into nearly any issue—the economy, the environment, immigration, civil rights, gun control—and you’ll find circumstances and events influencing human health, often resulting in profound physical, emotional and financial distress.
Evidence suggests that separating immigrant children from their families could cause lasting emotional trauma. Gun violence and adverse weather events destroy lives and property, and create hazardous living conditions. Structural racism has been linked to health inequities, for instance where housing discrimination leads to segregation of black buyers and renters in neighborhoods with poor living conditions. The list goes on, and through every such experience, affected individuals, their loved ones, and their communities learn implicitly what health care providers have long known: that health status depends on much more than access to, or quality of, health care.
Some of the most influential factors are called social determinants of health, and they include education, immigration status, access to safe drinking water, and others. Society and industry must collaborate to address them if we are to reduce the extraordinary human and economic costs of poor health in our nation. Fortunately, many providers have embraced the challenge, and are tackling it in myriad, innovative ways.
By REBECCA FOGG
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read the term “Disruptive Innovation” cited in relation to health care delivery. This might seem like a good thing, given that our expensive, wasteful, and in some cases frightfully ineffective traditional delivery model is in dire need of transformation. However, the term is frequently misunderstood to refer to any innovation representing a radical departure from an industry’s prior best offerings. In fact, it actually has a very specific definition.
Disruptive Innovation is the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost have become the status quo—eventually completely redefining the industry. It has played out in markets from home entertainment to teeth whitening, and it could make health care delivery more effective by making providers’ care processes, as well as individuals’ own self-care regimes easier and less costly. This, in turn, would reduce the need for both more, and more expensive, interventions over time.
Unfortunately, disruption has been slow to emerge in the health care sector. It’s been thwarted by the broader health care industry’s unique structure, which tends to prioritize the needs of commercial insurers and large employers (who pay the most for consumer care) over those of health care consumers themselves. It also stacks the deck against disruptive entrepreneurs, since established providers effectively control professional licensing requirements, and (along with insurers) access to patients & key delivery partners.
By NIRAN AL-AGBA, MD
A few weeks ago, I saw a young patient who was suffering from an ear infection. It was his fourth visit in eight weeks, as the infection had proven resistant to an escalating series of antibiotics prescribed so far. It was time to bring out a heavier hitter. I prescribed Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic rarely used in pediatrics, yet effective for some drug-resistant pediatric infections.
The patient was on the state Medicaid insurance and required a so-called prior authorization, or PA, for Ciprofloxacin. Consisting of additional paperwork that physicians are required to fill out before pharmacists can fill prescriptions for certain drugs, PAs boil down to yet another cost-cutting measure implemented by insurers to stand between patients and certain costly drugs.
The PA process usually takes from 48-72 hours, and it’s not infrequent for requests to be denied, even when the physician has demonstrated an undeniable medical need for the drug in question.
By ANISH KOKA MD
Everyone agrees that health care is bankrupting the nation. The prevailing winds have carried the argument that a system that pays per unit of health care delivered and thus favors volume over value is responsible. The problem, you see, was the doctors. They were just incentivized to do too much. This incontrovertible fact was the basis for changes in the healthcare system that favored hospital employment and have made the salaried physician the new normal. Yet, health care costs remain ascendant.
It turns out overutilization in the US healthcare system isn’t what its cracked up to be.
Figure 1. Utilization rates in different health care systems
A recent analysis (Figure 1) by Papanicolas et al., in JAMA demonstrates that while the United States is no slouch with regards to volume of imaging and procedures in a variety of different categories, it does not explain a health care system twice as expensive as its nearest competitor. The problem turns out not to be volume, rather its the unit price of healthcare in the United States.
Health Care Costs and Glass Houses
There are many stones cast by all the various players in healthcare when it comes to cost, and of course, everyone bears some degree of responsibility, but it’s also clear that some folks live in larger glass houses than others. The most beautiful of all the glass houses are those built by hospitals. From 1996 to 2013, it was not population growth, health status, doctors visits, or prescription drugs that drove spending increases. Sixty-three percent of the increase in cost over an almost 20-year time span can be attributed to hospital stays and testing during doctor visits. Consider that the average hospital stay in the US costs $18,142, and lasts 4.9 days compared to other industrialized countries where average hospital stays last 7.7 days, and cost $6,222. But despite these exorbitant prices hospital systems in the United States complain they barely stay afloat.