Trump’s Next Phase on Health Care: Everywhere and Nowhere

A scattershot and at times contradictory approach to fixing the system is impeding progress.

A hodgepodge of news this week is telling the confusing and contradictory story of President Donald Trump’s efforts to change American health care.  

On Monday, a federal judge blocked the administration’s efforts to force drugmakers to disclose the often astronomical list prices of medicines in their TV ads. It was intended to shame pharma into lowering prices, and would have been the first of the Trump administration’s major drug-cost initiatives to actually take effect.

On Tuesday, oral arguments were set for a Department of Justice-backed case that could wipe out the Affordable Care Act. 

Wednesday will reportedly see the president reveal an ambitious set of initiatives intended to rein in spending on kidney costs. 

The kidney initiative is among the administration’s better notions, along with its effort to index some drug costs covered by Medicare to the lower prices available abroad. Yet even when the administration lands on a good idea in health care, it seems to get in its own way. The Trump-backed ACA lawsuit, for example, would directly undermine the kidney initiative and price-indexing plan. And while the president has a variety of other proposals in the works – from an effort to pass drug discounts directly to consumers to a plan to force hospitals to make their pricing transparent – many could be exposed to the kind of legal risks that killed the drug-ad initiative. It’s all part of a scattershot and often incoherent approach that isn’t as effective as it could be.

Take the kidney-care push: this area of treatment is costly in part because the current system incentivizes expensive care at dialysis centers that are largely run by two companies: DaVita Inc. and  Fresenius Medical Care AG. (Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg LP, is the lead independent director at DaVita.) The Department of Health and Human Services reportedly wants to change that dynamic with new payment models intended to shift patients to more cost-effective treatment at home. At least part of the administration’s ability to implement those models comes from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Innovation Center, which was created by the ACA and is threatened by the lawsuit.

The contradictions don’t end there. People with end-stage kidney disease are covered by Medicare, so the lawsuit wouldn’t strip their coverage. However, the administration’s plan reportedly emphasizes intervening before people get to the point where they need dialysis or transplants. Killing the ACA is at direct odds with that goal. It would see millions lose insurance coverage, would eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions like chronic kidney disease, and crimp access to preventative care.

Though it is a long shot, the court case demonstrates the administration’s inconsistency in health care. Just about every health initiative would be harmed by the disruption that would result if this lawsuit succeeds, especially considering that the administration doesn’t have a replacement plan. If it were serious about keeping people off of dialysis or curing HIV, it would oppose this suit and stop other ongoing efforts that harm the ACA’s individual market and Medicaid.

The administration hasn’t detailed an ACA alternative because its previous effort to pass one was a political disaster that helped Democrats seize control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Instead, its health-care efforts have largely been confined to executive orders and rule-making. That approach narrows the scope of what the administration can accomplish, and comes with significant risks. If a federal judge thinks that forcing the disclosure of drug prices in ads is an overreach, there’s clearly a chance that the administration’s more ambitious plans will also have issues.

I’m rooting for the kidney effort. It targets a real problem and could have an impact, depending on the details. I’d be more optimistic about the plan’s chances if it were part of a cohesive set of policies that had Congressional backing, rather than the current jumble. 

Trump craves big action on drug prices to take to the campaign trail

Image result for high drug prices

There may be a modest slowdown this year in the growth of drug prices, but it’s nowhere near the seismic shift President Trump has called for. And that seems to be irking the president to no end.

Much of the president’s frustration has been borne by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former drug executive who until very recently pushed back on proposals to allow the importation of lower-cost drugs from Canada and give the government the tools to directly negotiate lower drug prices in the Medicare program, my Washington Post colleagues Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey and Laurie McGinley report.

But now, under intense pressure, Azar has reversed his long-standing opposition to at least one of those ideas: drug importation, an idea typically embraced by Democrats and dismissed by Republicans and the drug industry.

“Inspired by the president’s passion, Secretary Azar has been pushing FDA to go even bigger and broader on importation,” a senior administration official told my colleagues, although the official declined to detail specific policy changes.

It’s been a little more than a year since Trump promised Americans, in a speech from the Rose Garden, he would slash the price of prescription drugs in the United States. In that time, his administration has proposed some bold new regulations that could help move the needle, but only one has so far been finalized — a new requirement that went into effect this month for drugmakers to list prices in television ads.

While Azar has championed a proposal to eliminate the secretive rebates drug manufacturers pay to insurers, opposition to the idea from Domestic Policy Council head Joe Grogan is hamstringing the effort, my colleagues report. Grogan dislikes its estimated $180 billion price tag and doesn’t view the measure as central to the administration’s drug-pricing effort, they write.

There’s another proposal under review at the Office of Management and Budget to tie some Medicare drug prices to those paid by other countries, but it’s opposed by key Senate Republicans and the drug industry.

A senior administration official downplayed talk of tension between Azar and Grogan, saying the two, along with White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland, speak three times a week about what is happening on Capitol Hill.

And on Monday, the New York Post published a joint op-ed by Azar and Grogan praising a recent executive order from Trump aimed at more transparency around the prices negotiated between hospitals and insurers.

“President Trump has promised a better vision: a health care system that treats you like a person, not a number,” Azar and Grogan write. “He wants to hold providers and Big Pharma accountable to transparency and reasonable prices.”

Meanwhile, drugmakers have continued hiking prices, albeit a bit more slowly on average. List prices for branded drugs grew 3.3 percent in this year’s first quarter, compared with 6.3 percent in the first quarter of 2018, according to SSR Health pharmaceutical analysts. Bernstein analysts told Politico that drug prices jumped 10.5 percent over the past six months, less than over the same period last year but still four times the rate of inflation.

Trump has frequently referenced some encouraging data from the consumer price index, where the index for prescription drugs fell by 0.6 percent for the 12 months ending in December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The index also dropped in January, February, March and May — a string of monthly declines not seen since 1973, my Post fact-checking colleagues recently noted.

Yet these data are a far cry from the drastic price reductions Trump would love to tout on the campaign trail as he seeks reelection in 2020.

“By all accounts, drug prices are a fixation for Trump, who frequently sends advisers news clippings and summons them to the White House to rant about the issue,” Yasmeen, Josh and Laurie write. “The guy likes to make money, and he thinks they make too much money,” said one former senior administration official.

A senior administration official told my colleagues there was frustration at a lack of executive branch tools to lower drug prices and that some of Trump’s ideas were ambitious but unworkable.

“Disagreements over how to proceed have created a policy free-for-all as different advisers — and the president himself — pursue what appear to be ad hoc and sometimes dueling approaches,” they write. “Trump entertains proposals usually pushed by progressive Democrats one moment and free-market GOP ideas the next.”