BANKS PRESSURE HEALTH CARE FIRMS TO RAISE PRICES ON CRITICAL DRUGS, MEDICAL SUPPLIES FOR CORONAVIRUS

https://theintercept.com/2020/03/19/coronavirus-vaccine-medical-supplies-price-gouging/

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IN RECENT WEEKS, investment bankers have pressed health care companies on the front lines of fighting the novel coronavirus, including drug firms developing experimental treatments and medical supply firms, to consider ways that they can profit from the crisis.

The media has mostly focused on individuals who have taken advantage of the market for now-scarce medical and hygiene supplies to hoard masks and hand sanitizer and resell them at higher prices. But the largest voices in the health care industry stand to gain from billions of dollars in emergency spending on the pandemic, as do the bankers and investors who invest in health care companies.

Over the past few weeks, investment bankers have been candid on investor calls and during health care conferences about the opportunity to raise drug prices. In some cases, bankers received sharp rebukes from health care executives; in others, executives joked about using the attention on Covid-19 to dodge public pressure on the opioid crisis.

Gilead Sciences, the company producing remdesivir, the most promising drug to treat Covid-19 symptoms, is one such firm facing investor pressure.

Remdesivir is an antiviral that began development as a treatment for dengue, West Nile virus, and Zika, as well as MERS and SARS. The World Health Organization has said there is “only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy in treating coronavirus symptoms” — namely, remdesivir.

The drug, though developed in partnership with the University of Alabama through a grant from the federal government’s National Institutes of Health, is patented by Gilead Sciences, a major pharmaceutical company based in California. The firm has faced sharp criticism in the past for its pricing practices. It previously charged $84,000 for a yearlong supply of its hepatitis C treatment, which was also developed with government research support. Remdesivir is estimated to produce a one-time revenue of $2.5 billion.

During an investor conference earlier this month, Phil Nadeau, managing director at investment bank Cowen & Co., quizzed Gilead Science executives over whether the firm had planned for a “commercial strategy for remdesivir” or could “create a business out of remdesivir.”

Johanna Mercier, executive vice president of Gilead, noted that the company is currently donating products and “manufacturing at risk and increasing our capacity” to do its best to find a solution to the pandemic. The company at the moment is focused, she said, primarily on “patient access” and “government access” for remdesivir.

“Commercial opportunity,” Mercier added, “might come if this becomes a seasonal disease or stockpiling comes into play, but that’s much later down the line.”

Steven Valiquette, a managing director at Barclays Investment Bank, last week peppered executives from Cardinal Health, a health care distributor of N95 masks, ventilators and pharmaceuticals, on whether the company would raise prices on a range of supplies.

Valiquette asked repeatedly about potential price increases on a variety of products. Could the company, he asked, “offset some of the risk of volume shortages” on the “pricing side”?

Michael Kaufmann, the chief executive of Cardinal Health, said that “so far, we’ve not seen any material price increases that I would say are related to the coronavirus yet.” Cardinal Health, Kaufman said, would weigh a variety of factors when making these decisions, and added that the company is “always going to fight aggressively to make sure that we’re getting after the lowest cost.”

“Are you able to raise the price on some of this to offset what could be some volume shortages such that it all kind of nets out to be fairly consistent as far as your overall profit matrix?” asked Valiquette.

Kaufman responded that price decisions would depend on contracts with providers, though the firm has greater flexibility over some drug sales. “As you have changes on the cost side, you’re able to make some adjustments,” he noted.

The discussion, over conference call, occurred during the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference on March 10. At one point, Valiquette joked that “one positive” about the coronavirus would be a “silver lining” that Cardinal Health may receive “less questions” about opioid-related lawsuits.

Cardinal Health is one of several firms accused of ignoring warnings and flooding pharmacies known as so-called pill mills with shipments of millions of highly addictive painkillers. Kaufmann noted that negotiations for a settlement are ongoing.

Owens & Minor, a health care logistics company that sources and manufactures surgical gowns, N95 masks, and other medical equipment, presented at the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference the following day.

Valiquette, citing the Covid-19 crisis, asked the company whether it could “increase prices on some of the products where there’s greater demand.” Valiquette then chuckled, adding that doing so “is probably not politically all that great in the sort of dynamic,” but said he was “curious to get some thoughts” on whether the firm would consider hiking prices.

The inquiry was sharply rebuked by Owens & Minor chief executive Edward Pesicka. “I think in a crisis like this, our mission is really around serving the customer. And from an integrity standpoint, we have pricing agreements,” Pesicka said. “So we are not going to go out and leverage this and try to ‘jam up’ customers and raise prices to have short-term benefit.”

AmerisourceBergen, another health care distributor that supplies similar products to Cardinal Health, which is also a defendant in the multistate opioid litigation, faced similar questions from Valiquette at the Barclays event.

Steve Collis, president and chief executive of AmerisourceBergen, noted that his company has been actively involved in efforts to push back against political demands to limit the price of pharmaceutical products.

Collis said that he was recently at a dinner with other pharmaceutical firms involved with developing “vaccines for the coronavirus” and was reminded that the U.S. firms, operating under limited drug price intervention, were among the industry leaders — a claim that has been disputed by experts who note that lack of regulation in the drug industry has led to few investments in viral treatments, which are seen as less lucrative. Leading firms developing a vaccine for Covid-19 are based in Germany, China, and Japan, countries with high levels of government influence in the pharmaceutical industry.

AmerisourceBergen, Collis continued, has been “very active with key stakeholders in D.C., and our priority is to educate policymakers about the impact of policy changes,” with a focus on “rational and responsible discussion about drug pricing.”

Later in the conversation, Valiquette asked AmerisourceBergen about the opioid litigation. The lawsuits could cost as much as $150 billion among the various pharmaceutical and drug distributor defendants. Purdue Pharma, one of the firms targeted with the opioid litigation, has already pursued bankruptcy protection in response to the lawsuit threat.

“We can’t say too much,” Collis responded. But the executive hinted that his company is using its crucial role in responding to the pandemic crisis as leverage in the settlement negotiations. “I would say that this crisis, the coronavirus crisis, actually highlights a lot of what we’ve been saying, how important it is for us to be very strong financial companies and to have strong cash flow ability to invest in our business and to continue to grow our business and our relationship with our customers,” Collis said.

The hope that the coronavirus will benefit firms involved in the opioid crisis has already materialized in some ways. New York Attorney General Letitia James announced last week that her lawsuit against opioid firms and distributors, including Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, set to begin on March 20, would be delayed over coronavirus concerns.

MARKET PRESSURE has encouraged large health care firms to spend billions of dollars on stock buybacks and lobbying, rather than research and development. Barclays declined to comment, and Cowen & Co. did not respond to a request for comment.

The fallout over the coronavirus could pose potential risks for for-profit health care operators. In Spain, the government seized control of private health care providers, including privately run hospitals, to manage the demand for treatment for patients with Covid-19.

But pharmaceutical interests in the U.S. have a large degree of political power. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar previously served as president of the U.S. division of drug giant Eli Lilly and on the board of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a drug lobby group.

During a congressional hearing last month, Azar rejected the notion that any vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 should be set at an affordable price. “We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest,” said Azar. “The priority is to get vaccines and therapeutics. Price controls won’t get us there.”

The initial $8.3 billion coronavirus spending bill passed in early March to provide financial support for research into vaccines and other drug treatments contained a provision that prevents the government from delaying the introduction of any new pharmaceutical to address the crisis over affordability concerns. The legislative text was shaped, according to reports, by industry lobbyists.

As The Intercept previously reported, Joe Grogan, a key White House domestic policy adviser now serving on Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, previously served as a lobbyist for Gilead Sciences.

“Notwithstanding the pressure they may feel from the markets, corporate CEOs have large amounts of discretion and in this case, they should be very mindful of price gouging, they’re going to be facing a lot more than reputational hits,” said Robert Weissman, president of public interest watchdog Public Citizen, in an interview with The Intercept.

“There will be a backlash that will both prevent their profiteering, but also may push to more structural limitations on their monopolies and authority moving forward,” Weissman said.

Weissman’s group supports an effort led by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., who has called on the government to invoke the Defense Production Act to scale up domestic manufacturing of health care supplies.

There are other steps the government can take, Weissman added, to prevent price gouging.

“The Gilead product is patent-protected and monopoly-protected, but the government has a big claim over that product because of the investment it’s made,” said Weissman.

“The government has special authority to have generic competition for products it helped fund and prevent nonexclusive licensing for products it helped fund,” Weissman continued. “Even for products that have no connection to government funding, the government has the ability to force licensing for generic competition for its own acquisition and purchases.”

Drug companies often eschew vaccine development because of the limited profit potential for a one-time treatment. Testing kit companies and other medical supply firms have few market incentives for domestic production, especially scaling up an entire factory for short-term use. Instead, Levin and Weissman have argued, the government should take direct control of producing the necessary medical supplies and generic drug production.

Last Friday, Levin circulated a letter signed by other House Democrats that called for the government to take charge in producing ventilators, N95 respirators, and other critical supplies facing shortages.

The once inconceivable policy was endorsed on Wednesday when Trump unveiled a plan to invoke the Defense Production Act to compel private firms to produce needed supplies during the crisis. The law, notably, allows the president to set a price ceiling for critical goods used in an emergency.

 

 

 

 

Experts agree that Trump’s coronavirus response was poor, but the US was ill-prepared in the first place

https://theconversation.com/experts-agree-that-trumps-coronavirus-response-was-poor-but-the-us-was-ill-prepared-in-the-first-place-133674?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20March%2017%202020%20-%201565314971&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20March%2017%202020%20-%201565314971+Version+A+CID_6ce2ffeb273f535ccdcb368c4649a7ee&utm_source=campaign_monitor_us&utm_term=Experts%20agree%20that%20Trumps%20coronavirus%20response%20was%20poor%20but%20the%20US%20was%20ill-prepared%20in%20the%20first%20place

As the coronavirus pandemic exerts a tighter grip on the nation, critics of the Trump administration have repeatedly highlighted the administration’s changes to the nation’s pandemic response team in 2018 as a major contributor to the current crisis. This combines with a hiring freeze at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leaving hundreds of positions unfilled. The administration also has repeatedly sought to reduce CDC funding by billions of dollars. Experts agree that the slow and uncoordinated response has been inadequate and has likely failed to mitigate the coming widespread outbreak in the U.S.

As a health policy expert, I agree with this assessment. However, it is also important to acknowledge that we have underfunded our public health system for decades, perpetuated a poorly working health care system and failed to bring our social safety nets in line with other developed nations. As a result, I expect significant repercussions for the country, much of which will disproportionately fall on those who can least afford it.

Decades of underfunding

Spending on public health has historically proven to be one of humanity’s best investments. Indeed, some of the largest increases in life expectancy have come as the direct result of public health interventions, such as sanitation improvements and vaccinations.

Even today, return on investments for public health spending is substantial and tends to significantly outweigh many medical interventions. For example, one study found that every US$10 per person spent by local health departments reduces infectious disease morbidity by 7.4%.

However, despite their importance to national well-being, public health expenditures have been neglected at all levels. Since 2008, for example, local health departments have lost more than 55,000 staff. By 2016, only about 133,000 full-time equivalent staff remained. State funding for public health was lower in 2016-2017 than in 2008-2009. And the CDC’s prevention and public health budget has been flat and significantly underfunded for years. Overall, of the more than $3.5 trillion the U.S. spends annually on health care, a meager 2.5% goes to public health.

Not surprisingly, the nation has experienced a number of outbreaks of easily preventable diseases. Currently, we are in the middle of significant outbreaks of hepatitis A (more than 31,000 cases), syphilis (more than 35,000 cases), gonorrhea (more than 580,000 cases) and chlamydia (more than 1,750,000 cases). Our failure to contain known diseases bodes ill for our ability to rein in the emerging coronavirus pandemic.

Failures of health care systems

Yet while we have underinvested in public health, we have been spending massive and growing amounts of money on our medical care system. Indeed, we are spending more than any other country for a system that is significantly underperforming.

To make things worse, it is also highly inequitable. Yet, the system is highly profitable for all players involved. And to maximize income, both for- and nonprofits have consistently pushed for greater privatization and the elimination of competitors.

As a result, thousands of public and private hospitals deemed “inefficient” because of unfilled beds have closed. This eliminated a significant cushion in the system to buffer spikes in demand.

At any given time, this decrease in capacity does not pose much of a problem for the nation. Yet in the middle of a global pandemic, communities will face significant challenges without this surge capacity. If the outbreak mirrors anything close to what we have seen in other countries, “there could be almost six seriously ill patients for every existing hospital bed.” A worst-case scenario from the same study puts the number at 17 to 1. To make things worse, there will likely be a particular shortage of unoccupied intensive care beds.

Of course, the lack of overall hospitals beds is not the most pressing issue. Hospitals also lack the levels of staffing and supplies needed to cope with a mass influx of patients. However, the lack of ventilators might prove the most daunting challenge.

Limits of the overall social safety net

While the U.S. spends trillions of dollars each year on medical care, our social safety net has increasingly come under strain. Even after the Affordable Care Actalmost 30 million Americans do not have health insurance coverage. Many others are struggling with high out-of-pocket payments.

To make things worse, spending on social programs, outside of those protecting the elderly, has been shrinking, and is significantly smaller than in other developed nations. Moreover, public assistance is highly uneven and differs significantly from state to state.

And of course, the U.S. heavily relies on private entities, mostly employers, to offer benefits taken for granted in other developed countries, including paid sick leave and child care. This arrangement leaves 1 in 4 American workers without paid sick leave, resulting in highly inequitable coverage. As a result, many low-income families struggle to make ends meet even when times are good.

Can the US adapt?

I believe that the limitations of the U.S. public health response and a potentially overwhelmed medical care system are likely going to be exacerbated by the blatant limitations of the U.S. welfare state. However, after weathering the current storm, I expect us to go back to business as usual relatively quickly. After all, that’s what happened after every previous pandemic, such as H1N1 in 2009 or even the 1918 flu epidemic.

The problems are in the incentive structure for elected officials. I expect that policymakers will remain hesitant to invest in public health, let alone revamp our safety net. While the costs are high, particularly for the latter, there are no buildings to be named, and no quick victories to be had. The few advocates for greater investments lack resources compared to the trillion-dollar interests from the medical sector.

Yet, if altruism is not enough, we should keep reminding policymakers that outbreaks of communicable diseases pose tremendous challenges for local health care systems and communities. They also create remarkable societal costs. The coronavirus serves as a stark reminder.

 

 

Consolidation increasing stakes for payer-provider contract disputes, study finds

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/payer-issues/consolidation-increasing-stakes-for-payer-provider-contract-disputes-study-finds.html?utm_medium=email

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As more providers and insurers consolidate, the chances that both sides will run into disagreements over their in-network contracts have heightened, according to a report from the Center on Health Insurance Reforms from the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. 

For the report, researchers reviewed insurance laws across six states, based on geographic diversity and recent high-profile payer-provider conflicts that took place there: California, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. Some high-profile conflicts in the states include UnitedHealthcare and Houston Methodist; Pittsburgh-based Highmark Health and UPMCCigna and San Francisco-based Dignity HealthCigna and Asheville, N.C.-based Mission Hospital; and Cigna and Irving, Texas-based Christus Health.

In interviews with regulators and insurers, researchers found both agreed that the more providers and payers consolidate, the higher the stakes for contract disputes. This will expose more consumers to care disruptions and higher out-of-pocket costs, they said. Several regulators warned that a greater number of high-profile contract disputes will take place in the future. 

State officials and insurers offered several recommendations for improving the patient experience through contract disputes, including providing members with advanced notice of possible contract termination and requiring insurers to hold their enrollees harmless if they can’t access necessary care elsewhere.

 

Healthcare Reform: The Perfect or Politically Possible?

Healthcare Reform: The Perfect or Politically Possible?

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Health economist William Hsiao PhD lays out two stark choices on healthcare reform facing Americans:

  • should health insurance continue being treated as a market-driven commercial product, or should it be changed to a government-regulated social good?
  • if Americans opt for change, should they alter the system quickly in a few years or slowly over decades?

In the February issue of Foreign Affairs, Professor Hsiao makes the case the healthcare market has failed – “Americans pay more and get less.” But he questions whether Americans currently have enough political will to undertake more than small incremental steps toward transforming it.

He acknowledges that changing to a single-payer approach would radically cut administrative costs, extend coverage to all, strengthen fraud control, and spread actuarial risk more evenly. He also acknowledges that doing so would reduce the overall national spending on healthcare and would relieve households from the financial threats of escalating premiums and illness.

But, he writes, the single-payer approach would encounter both public fear of major change as well as resistance from powerful interest groups like the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical firms. “Although Americans have begun to take a more favorable view of single-payer systems in recent years, it’s far from clear that the idea has enough popular support to clear such hurdles.”

He cites Canada and Taiwan as examples of rapid comprehensive reform undertaken in 1968 and 1995, respectively. He notes that these two systems have kept annual per-capita spending at $4,974 in Canada and $1,430 in Taiwan, compared with over $10,000 annually for Americans. And he notes that both countries enjoy longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality than the U.S.

But he questions whether such a radical approach is politically possible in the U.S. His admonitions should not be ignored, since he is a renowned international expert on healthcare financing and social insurance, with long-standing tenure at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. Also, he is no stranger to healthcare politics as the prime architect of Medicare’s resource-based relative-value pricing schema.

The German Alternative

Professor Hsiao suggests another model – Germany.

Germany’s first “sickness funds” were created in 1883 by Chancellor von Bismarck (see my YouTube video, “Brief History of U.S. Healthcare”).  Then, after World War I, the Reichstag mandated universal coverage for all citizens. In the 1990s, chaotic coverage packages were standardized by law. Since then, the hybrid regulated market consolidated down to just 115 insurers currently, all now using required uniform claims procedures. Administrative costs are low, drug costs are controlled, per-capital spending is $5,728, and life expectancy and infant mortality are better than in the U.S.

Professor Hsiao argues that an incremental approach like Germany’s is more politically feasible in the U.S.  For example, implementing a uniform system of records and payments could streamline claims processing and improve control of duplication and fraud. He favors allowing a monopsony of insurers to collectively bargain on drug prices. Measures like these would predictably save $200 to $300 billion dollars annually, a comparatively small but worthwhile step.

Meanwhile, he favors state-level or federal-level risk pools and regional health budgets to cover the uninsured and underinsured.  These measures would require modest tax increases along the way, but would sidestep the politically problematic issue of abolishing private health insurance.

Comment

Professor Hsiao astutely frames the question of healthcare reform as a debate over “the perfect and the good.” He implies that doing nothing is not an option. But he also astutely notes that the clash between public sentiment and the vested interests will drive the political power dynamic. Will Americans’ escalating pocketbook costs prevail over their fear of change and their tolerance for non-costworthy spending in the current system?

This blog has predicted that rising walletbook pain will push Americans to their political tipping point.  Time will tell.

 

Healthcare spending is higher over 5 years, mostly due to a rise in prices, says new report

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/node/139806?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTldNMllXTmpNVEJpTVRNMSIsInQiOiI1MVlQdys0d2FHbVZESVVjMDNFS2tnQVNJSlNjS2xsT1BCXC9FdGFZbWI2TDZQcnBJZHZIU2p4Qm9GNEw1K1ZsM1M5SVVPYU51OGxxOVJNRndtTlY1UXFkaFNueDVXbTlWbHRmSHF2YWhhVVdZdkthc0FzOHBIWFN3ZTNXdHVoVTkifQ%3D%3D

Between 2014 and 2018, per-person yearly spending, for those with employer-sponsored insurance, climbed 18.4%.

A new report confirms concerns about healthcare costs, as it shows per-person spending is increasing faster than per-capita gross domestic product.

Between 2014 and 2018, per-person yearly spending, for those with employer-sponsored insurance, climbed  from $4,987 to $5,892, an 18.4% increase, according to the 2018 Health Care Cost and Utilization Report released Thursday.  The average annual rate of 4.3% outpaced growth in per-capita GDP, which increased at an average 3.4% over the same period.

There’s an exception from 2017 to 2018, when per-capita GDP grew slightly faster than healthcare spending per person.

The $5,892 total includes amounts paid for medical and pharmacy claims but does not subtract manufacturer rebates for prescription drugs.

Healthcare spending grew 4.4% in 2018, slightly above growth in 2017 of 4.2%, and the third consecutive year of growth above 4%.

After adjusting for inflation, spending rose by $610 per person between
2014 and 2018.

The cost estimates are consistent with National Health Expenditure data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the report said.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT

Higher prices for medical services were responsible for about three-quarters, 74%, of the spending increase above inflation. These increases were across all categories of outpatient and professional services.

Average prices grew 2.6% in 2018. While that is the lowest rate of growth over the period, consistent year-over-year increases mean that prices were 15% higher in 2018 than 2014.

The increase for outpatient visits and procedures was $87 in 2018, the largest annual increase between 2014 and 2018.

Average out-of-pocket price for ER visits increased more sharply than other subcategories of outpatient visits, though all saw an increase in the average amount for which patients were responsible

Professional service spending per person rose $86 in 2018, reflecting an acceleration in spending growth consistent with previous years’ trends, according to the report.

Inpatient services and prescription drugs also saw an increase in spending per person.

Inpatient admissions increased $24 in 2018, a smaller annual increase than in 2016 or 2017, but above the rise in 2015.

Per-person spending on prescription drugs rose $50, similar to increases in 2016 and 2017, but smaller than the rise in 2015. The total does not reflect manufacturer rebates.

On average, Americans with employer-sponsored insurance spent
$155 out-of-pocket on prescription drugs in 2018.

Prices rose, as did utilization, which grew 1.8% from 2017 to 2018, the fastest pace during the five-year period. And because of the higher price levels, the effect of the increase in utilization in 2018 on total spending was higher than it would have been in 2014.

Higher utilization may be the result of a population that got slightly older between 2014 and 2018. The population also became slightly more female.

People with job-based insurance saw their out-of-pocket costs rise by an average of 14.5%, or $114, between 2014 and 2018.

THE LARGER TREND

As most Americans have job-based health insurance, this data is critical for understanding overall health costs in the United States, the report said.

An estimated 49% of the U.S. population, about 160 million people, had employer-based health insurance in 2018, based on Census data.

The report combined data from large insurers, using 4,000 distinct
age/gender/geography combinations. It contains previously unreported information drawn from 2.5 billion insurance claims.

Claims data is the most comprehensive source of real-world evidence available to researchers as databases collect information on millions of doctors’ visits, healthcare procedures, prescriptions, and payments by insurers and patients, giving researchers large sample sizes, the report said.

 

Cartoon – I can’t afford that diagnosis

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