Budget, White Paper Provide Insight Into Trump Administration’s Strategy On Drug Pricing


During his first year in office, President Donald Trump spoke often about the problem of high drug prices but took no action on the subject. President Trump’s new budget proposal and a newly released white paper from the White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) aim to change that by laying out a strategy for action moving forward. These documents are, of course, aspirational, but they do provide a window into the administration’s priorities, and they should be evaluated to consider whether the administration has a possibility of achieving its stated goals.

In this post, I review several of the key elements of those proposals, considering their impact on a range of relevant dimensions. I discuss what’s included in the proposals, and, as importantly, what’s left out.

Medicare Reforms

The bulk of the proposed reforms would act on the Medicare and Medicaid programs. For Medicare, the Trump administration’s proposals are largely targeted at 1) assisting beneficiaries with high out-of-pocket costs and 2) realigning incentives to alter prescribing and reimbursement practices.

First, the administration is advancing a set of proposals to assist Medicare Part D beneficiaries with high out-of-pocket costs. Both the white paper and budget proposal argue that plans should be required to share with beneficiaries at the point-of-sale some amount of the rebates the plan negotiates with drug manufacturers. In November, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) already requested public comments on the implementation of this proposal, and it seems as if the budget document’s inclusion of the proposal is evidence that the administration is hoping to move it forward.

However, like many of the other reforms in the budget proposal and white paper, there are few details proposed. In CMS’s November proposal, the agency modeled a set of scenarios in which insurers pass through 33 percent, 66 percent, 90 percent, or 100 percent of their negotiated rebates. Each scenario comes with a set of advantages for beneficiaries, but also costs for the federal government. That is, CMS anticipated that reducing cost-sharing for particular high-cost beneficiaries would increase premiums for all beneficiaries, and therefore increase CMS’ overall spending through premium subsidies. How much the proposal would increase overall spending depends on the amount of rebates being passed through.

The budget proposal simply says that sponsors must pass through “at least one-third” of total rebates, so it does not provide further clarity on this proposal. However, it states that this proposal will cost the government $42.2 billion over 10 years. That estimate lies between CMS’s November estimates for 33 percent ($27.3 billion in spending) and 66 percent ($55.1 billion in spending), so it is possible that the administration has in mind a pass-through provision at 50 percent or so.

Another proposal aimed at out-of-pocket costs would establish an out-of-pocket maximum for patients who enter the Medicare Part D catastrophic phase. Currently, patients who reach the catastrophic phase of the Part D benefit are responsible for 5 percent of the costs of their prescription drugs, with no upper limit. The budget proposal would reduce their payments to 0 percent, although it is light on the details as to how this would be accomplished. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that just over one million Part D enrollees have out-of-pocket costs above this threshold, and those patients would likely be the primary beneficiaries of this proposal. At the same time, however, the budget proposes to exclude manufacturer discounts from patient out-of-pocket cost calculations, which would likely slow the rate at which patients move into the catastrophic phase.

Second, the Trump administration proposes a number of changes to drug classification and reimbursement that would both enable plan sponsors to negotiate more effectively and alter prescribing behavior. The budget proposal would change current Part D plan formulary rules, requiring sponsors to cover just one drug per class, rather than two. The proposal also mentions increased use of utilization management tools for the six protected classes of drugs, suggesting that the general coverage requirement for those classes would remain as-is. This proposal is projected to save $5.5 billion over ten years.

More interestingly, both the budget proposal and CEA white paper suggest the possibility of moving a set of Part B drugs (those administered in an outpatient setting) into Part D coverage. Medicare Part B does not presently have a number of the tools that enable Part D plan sponsors to negotiate discounts with drug manufacturers, and Secretary Alex Azar spoke during his confirmation hearing about the need to “take the learnings from Part D and apply them to Part B.” This proposal would accomplish that goal, just through the reverse mechanism: by shifting drugs from Part B into Part D. The budget proposal envisions giving the authority to do this to the Secretary, noting that “[t]he Secretary will exercise this authority when there are savings to be gained from price competition.” As such, it does not provide any particular budgetary impact.

The budget proposes two other changes to Part B reimbursement. At present, when a physician is reimbursed for providing a drug under Part B, she is reimbursed based on the Average Sales Price (ASP) of the drug plus 6 percent. There is widespread concern that this reimbursement system encourages physicians to prescribe and administer more expensive drugs than may be medically necessary. The Obama administration proposed a demonstration project that would have moved from the current ASP+6 percent system to a system of ASP+2.5 percent+a flat fee for prescribing the product. After extensive criticism from a range of stakeholders, the administration shelved the initiative. Now, the administration is proposing to reduce payment rates for new drugs (for which the ASP information is not yet available, and so for which the only price available is the Wholesale Acquisition Cost (WAC)). Instead of paying 106 percent for these new products, the administration would pay 103 percent of the WAC during the period before ASP information has yet to be provided. This proposal is quite narrow in its scope, applying only to new drugs and only during the brief period before ASP information is available; it is therefore unlikely to save much money.

The Trump administration is also proposing to establish an inflation limit for the reimbursement of Part B drugs more generally. Instead of continually updating the ASP+6 percent figure if the ASP increases, this proposal would limit the growth of the reimbursement to the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers. CMS would therefore pay “pay the lesser of (1) the actual ASP +6 percent or (2) the inflation-adjusted ASP +6 percent.” At present, Medicaid is protected from price increases when the Average Manufacturer Price (AMP) for a drug increases faster than inflation. The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General has proposed that CMS and Congress consider extending this provision to Medicare Part D, but as yet Congress has not moved to do so. This budget proposal can be thought of as proposing a similar constraint on Part B pricing.

Medicaid Reforms

The Medicaid portion of the budget proposal puts forth an idea which is potentially ground-breaking, but which is also potentially a sign of the administration’s recalcitrance to move on drug pricing (depending on the details). Specifically, the administration is proposing “new statutory demonstration authority to allow up to five states more flexibility in negotiating prices with manufacturers, rather than participate in the Medicaid Drug Rebate Program, and to make drug coverage decisions that meet state needs.” The idea is something like this: at present, state Medicaid programs must cover essentially all drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which limits their ability to extract discounts. To be sure, Medicaid programs are already entitled by statute to large discounts off of the AMP, and to the inflation clawback as noted above. But many state Medicaid programs are worried that pharmaceutical spending has become an unsustainable part of their budget and are seeking ways to control their costs in this area. This proposal might empower them to do so.

Here’s the thing: Massachusetts has already submitted an 1115 waiver to CMS along these lines. Massachusetts is seeking 1) to pay for a single drug in each therapeutic class (as noted above, this is a reform the administration is proposing to make to Medicare Part D), and 2) to exclude entirely from coverage drugs “with limited or inadequate evidence of clinical efficacy,” likely to be those approved through the FDA’s accelerated approval process. This budget proposal may be a sign that the administration is interested in approving Massachusetts’ waiver. However, the fact that the budget explicitly calls for new statutory authority to do so suggests that the administration may not think it has the legal authority to approve Massachusetts’ waiver, as is. And given Congress’ inability to act thus far on drug pricing, the administration may be seeking to hide behind Congress’ inaction here.

Yet the call for new statutory authority is puzzling. At present, pharmaceutical coverage is an optional benefit under the Medicaid program. States do not have to cover drugs and therefore are not required to participate in the Medicaid Drug Rebate Program, although all have chosen to do so, and choosing to do so comes with a set of requirements. But it is not clear to me why CMS could not conduct this demonstration at present, under the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation’s (CMMI) existing authority.

A potential clue may lie in the administration’s statement that the demonstration would “exempt prices negotiated under the demonstration from best price reporting.” Having written recently on the topic of the Medicaid best-price rule and innovative contracting for pharmaceuticals, it is not clear to me exactly why this is a sticking point. The Medicaid best price rule entitles Medicaid to the “best price” available for a particular drug for a particular set of providers. The statute contains large carve-outs—for instance, discounts provided to the Department of Veterans Affairs or to Medicare Part D are exempt from the best-price calculation. But it is strange to talk about needing to exempt Medicaid programs from the best-price rule when the best-price rule was intended to benefit Medicaid itself. I imagine that the administration sees the 340B program as a potential concern here, but again it is not obvious why CMMI could not waive the best-price rule as part of its existing authority.

FDA Activities

As I have written here previously, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has been at the forefront of the Trump administration’s efforts on drug pricing. He has taken a number of actions to promote generic competition, and although it will take some time to observe their benefits, the FDA’s existing legal authority to address drug pricing issues is quite narrowly circumscribed. The CEA white paper and budget proposal largely acknowledge this point, with the white paper lauding the actions the FDA has taken thus far on expediting review of generic drug applications, providing guidance on the development of complex generics, and other similar activities.

President Trump’s budget proposal calls for Congress to give the FDA more power to promote generic competition, by “ensur[ing] that first-to-file generic applicants who have been awarded a 180-day exclusivity period do not unreasonably and indefinitely block subsequent generics from entering the market beyond the exclusivity period.” More specifically, the concern is that first-to-file generic applicants—perhaps those whose initial applications may be rejected—can unduly delay generic entry while they remedy the deficiencies in their application. The administration projects that this reform will save the government $1.8 billion in Medicare savings over 10 years.

Other pieces of legislation have called for reform of the 180-day exclusivity period in different ways. Last year, Democrats in both the House and Senate introduced the Improving Access to Affordable Prescription Drugs Act, which included provisions preventing generic entrants from receiving the statutory 180-day exclusivity benefit if they had engaged in pay-for-delay conduct (Sections 402 and 403). But the idea in the president’s budget proposal may dovetail nicely with the FDA’s efforts to improve first-cycle approval rates for abbreviated new drug application products, as well.

What’s Missing

Perhaps what’s most notable about the budget proposal and the CEA white paper is not what’s included, but rather what is missing. Gone are some of President Trump’s older arguments that Medicare should negotiate drug prices, or that drug importation should be permitted more widely. Some of the more significant cost-saving provisions from President Obama’s budget, like a reform that would have put low-income patients back on Medicaid prices, are also absent.

A key set of missing proposals are those which would directly assist privately insured patients. The budget’s focus on Medicare and Medicaid may well have a positive impact on the more than 100 million Americans enrolled in those programs. But for the roughly half of Americans (closer to 160 million) with employer-sponsored insurance, these reforms will provide no assistance. Growing numbers of Americans with employer-sponsored insurance are enrolled in high-deductible plans, and many of them may face the same affordability concerns that Medicare beneficiaries are facing.

You could imagine proposals that would address the drug pricing problem more broadly, rather than just within the publicly-insured population. The above-mentioned Improving Access to Affordable Prescription Drugs Act would have addressed the problem of drug pricing for a broader segment of the population. As I’ve explained here, the Act would have taxed companies which engage in large, year-over-year list price increases. It would also have capped patient out-of-pocket costs in Affordable Care Act-regulated plans, at $250 per month for an individual or $500 per month for a family.

More generally, even these proposals which would affect drug companies directly would have a minimal impact on their bottom lines. This set of proposals is largely very friendly to the pharmaceutical industry and is primarily aimed at curtailing patients’ financial burdens and tweaking incentives for stakeholders at the margin.

In this blog post, I have covered just a handful of the many different drug pricing-related proposals included in the new budget proposal and in the CEA white paper. As usual, observers should stay tuned to the actions CMS and the FDA take on this front, as they will show whether the administration is serious about these proposals or is merely posturing.


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