Some countries have stockpiles. Others have nothing. Getting a vaccine means living in the right place — or knowing the right people.
A 16-year-old in Israel can get a vaccine.
So can a 16-year-old in Mississippi.
And an 18-year-old in Shanghai.
But a 70-year-old in Shanghai can’t get one. Older people are at high risk for severe illness from Covid-19. But Chinese officials have been reluctant to vaccinate seniors, citing a lack of clinical trial data. Neither can an 80-year-old in Kenya. Low vaccine supply in many countries means only health care employees and other frontline workers are eligible, not the elderly.
Nor a 90-year-old in South Korea. Koreans 75 and older are not eligible until April 1. Only health care workers and nursing-home residents and staff are currently being vaccinated. The government initially said it was awaiting assurances that the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe and effective for older groups.
Anyone in Haiti.
Anyone in Papua New Guinea.
Anyone in these 67 countries. These countries have not reported any vaccinations, according to Our World in Data. Official figures can be incomplete, but many countries are still awaiting their first doses.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this: Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative, was meant to prevent unequal access by negotiating vaccine deals on behalf of all participating nations. Richer nations would purchase doses through Covax, and poorer nations would receive them for free.
But rich nations quickly undermined the program by securing their own deals directly with pharmaceutical companies. In many countries, they have reserved enough doses to immunize their own multiple times over.
Anyone who can afford a smartphone or an internet connection in India and is over 60 can get one. Mostly wealthy Indians are being inoculated in New Delhi and Mumbai, hospitals have reported, since vaccine appointments typically require registering online. Less than half of India’s population has access to the internet, and even fewer own smartphones.
And anyone who can pay $13,000 and travel to the U.A.E. for three weeks and is 65 or older or can prove they have a health condition.
A member of Congress in the United States. Friends of the mayor of Manaus, Brazil. Lawmakers in Lebanon. A top-ranking military leader in Spain. The extended family of the deputy health minister in Peru. The security detail to the president of the Philippines. Government allies with access to a so-called “V.I.P. Immunization Clinic” in Argentina. Around the world, those with power and connections have often been first in line to receive the vaccine — or have cut the line altogether.
A smoker in Illinois can get one.But not a smoker in Georgia.
A diabetic in the United Kingdom can. A diabetic in Connecticut can’t.
Countries have prioritized different underlying health conditions, with the majority focusing on illnesses that may increase the risk of severe Covid-19. In the U.S., health issues granted higher priority differ from state to state, prompting some people to travel across state borders.
A pregnant woman in New York.Not a pregnant woman in Germany. Up to two close contacts of a pregnant woman in Germany. Pregnant women were barred from participating in clinical trials, prompting many countries to exclude them from vaccine priority groups. But some experts say the risks to pregnant women from Covid-19 are greater than any theoretical harm from the vaccines.
A grocery worker in Texas, no. A grocery worker in Oklahoma, yes.
Many areas aim to stop the virus by vaccinating those working in frontline jobs, like public transit and grocery stores. But who counts as essential depends on where you live.
A police officer in the U.K. A police officer in Kenya. A postal worker in California. A postal worker in North Carolina. A teacher in Belgium. A teacher in Campeche, Mexico. Other jobs have been prioritized because of politics: Mexico’s president made all teachers in the southern state of Campeche eligible in a possible bid to gain favor with the teacher’s union.
Medical staff at jails and prisons in Colombia. A correctional officer in Tennessee. A prisoner in Tennessee. A prisoner in Florida. The virus spread rapidly through prisons and jails, which often have crowded conditions and little protective equipment. But few places have prioritized inoculating inmates.
An undocumented farm worker in Southern California. A refugee living in a shelter in Germany. An undocumented immigrant in the United Kingdom. Britain has said that everyone in the country is eligible for the vaccine, regardless of their legal status.
A Palestinian in the West Bank without a work permit. Despite leading the world in per-capita vaccinations, Israel has so far not vaccinated most Palestinians, unless they have permits to work in Israel or settlements in the occupied West Bank.
An adult in Bogotá, Colombia. An adult in the Amazonian regions of Colombia that border Brazil. In most of Colombia, the vaccine is only available to health care workers and those over 80.
But the government made all adults in Leticia, Puerto Nariño, Mitú and Inírida eligible, hoping to prevent the variant first detected in Brazil from arriving in other areas. A police officer in Mexico City. A teacher in rural Mexico.The government of populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has prioritized vaccinating the poor and those in rural communities, despite the country’s worst outbreaks occurring in major cities.
Indigenous people living on official indigenous land in Brazil.
These 43 countries, mostly high income, are on pace to be done in a year. These 148 countries, mostly low income, are on pace to take until next year or even longer. Countries like the U.S. continue to stockpile tens of millions of vaccine doses, while others await their first shipments.
“The vaccine rollout has been inequitable, unfair, and dangerous in leaving so many countries without any vaccine doses at all,” said Gavin Yamey, director of Duke University’s Center for Policy Impact in Global Health.
“It’s a situation in which I, a 52-year-old white man who can work from home and has no pre-existing medical conditions, will be vaccinated far ahead of health workers or a high-risk person in a middle- or low-income country.”
COVID-19 accelerated a number of trends already brewing in the healthcare industry, and that’s not likely to change this year, according to a new report from CVS Health.
The healthcare giant released its annual Health Trends Report on Tuesday, and the analysis projects several industry trends that are likely to define 2021 in healthcare, ranging from technology to behavioral health to affordability.
“We are facing a challenging time, but also one of great hope and promise,” CVS CEO Karen Lynch said in the report. “As the pandemic eventually passes, its lessons will serve to make our health system more agile and more responsive to the needs of consumers.”
Here’s a look at four of CVS’ predictions:
1. A looming mental health crisis
Behavioral health needs were a significant challenge in healthcare prior to COVID-19, but the number of people reporting declining mental health jumped under the pandemic.
Cara McNulty, president of Aetna Behavioral Health, said in a video attached to the report that it will be critical to “continue the conversation around mental health and well-being” as we emerge from the pandemic and to reduce stigma so people who need help seek it out.
“We’re normalizing that it’s important to take care of our mental well-being,” she said.
Data released in December by GoodRx found that prescription fills for depression and anxiety medications hit an all-time high in 2020. GoodRx researchers polled 1,000 people with behavioral health conditions on how they were navigating the pandemic, and 63% said their depression and/or anxiety symptoms worsened.
McNulty said symptoms to look for when assessing whether someone is struggling with declining mental health include whether they’re withdrawn or agitated or if there’s a notable difference in their self-care routine.
2. Pharmacists take center stage
CVS dubbed 2021 “the year of the pharmacist” in its report.
The company expects pharmacists to be a key player in a number of areas, especially in vaccine distribution as that process inches toward broader access. They also offer a key touchpoint to counsel patients about their care and direct them to appropriate services, CVS said.
CVS executives said in the report that they see a significant opportunity for pharmacists to have a positive impact on the social determinants of health.
“We’ve found people are not only open and willing to share social needs with their pharmacists but in many cases, they listen to and act on the advice and recommendations of pharmacists,” Peter Simmons, vice president of transformation, pharmacy delivery and innovation at CVS Health, said in the report.
3. Finding ways to mitigate the cost of high-price therapies
Revolutionary drugs and therapies are coming to market with eye-popping price tags; it’s not uncommon to see new pharmaceuticals priced at $1 million or more. For pharmacy benefit managers, this poses a major cost challenge.
To address those prices, CVS expects value-based contracting to take off in a big way. And drugmakers are comfortable with the idea, according to the report. Novartis, for example, is offering insurers a five-year payment plan for its $2 million gene therapy Zolgensma, with refunds available if the drug doesn’t achieve desired results.
CVS said the potential for these therapies is clear, but many payers want to see some type of results before they fork over hundreds of thousands.
“Though the drug may promise to cure these patients for life, these are early days in their use,” said Joanne Armstrong, M.D., enterprise head of women’s health and genomics at CVS Health, in the report. “What we’re saying is, show us the clinical value proposition first.”
CVS said it’s also offering a stop-loss program for gene therapy to self-funded employers contracted with Aetna and/or Caremark to assist them in capping the expenses associated with these drugs.
4. Getting into the community to address diabetes
Diabetes risk is higher among vulnerable populations, such as Black patients, and addressing it will require local and community-based solutions, CVS executives said in the report. Groups at the highest risk for the disease are less likely to live in areas with easy access to a supermarket, for example, which boosts their risk of unhealthy eating, according to the report.
The two key hurdles to addressing this issue are access and affordability. The rise in retail clinics and ambulatory care centers can get at the access issue, as they can offer a way to better meet patients where they are.
At CVS’ MinuteClinics, patients can walk in and receive a number of services to assist them in managing diabetes, including screenings, consultations with providers and connections to diabetes educators who can assist with lifestyle changes.
Retail locations can also assist with medication costs, creating a one-stop-shop experience that’s easier for many diabetes patients to slot into their daily lives, CVS said.
“Diabetes is a case study in how a more connected experience can translate to simpler, affordable and more accessible care for underserved communities,” said Dan Finke, executive vice president of CVS Health and president of its healthcare benefits division.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of artificial intelligence adoption, and healthcare leaders are confident AI can help solve some of today’s toughest challenges, including COVID-19 tracking and vaccines.
The majority of healthcare and life sciences executives (82%) want to see their organizations more aggressively adopt AI technology, according to a new survey from KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory services firm.
Healthcare and life sciences (56%) business leaders report that AI initiatives have delivered more value than expected for their organizations. However, life sciences companies seem to be struggling to select the best AI technologies, according to 73% of executives.
As the U.S. continues to navigate the pandemic, life sciences business leaders are overwhelmingly confident in AI’s ability to monitor the spread of COVID-19 cases (94%), help with vaccine development (90%) and aid vaccine distribution (90%).
KPMG’s AI survey is based on feedback from 950 business or IT decision-makers across seven industries, with 100 respondents each from healthcare and life sciences companies.
Despite the optimism about the potential for AI, executives across industries believe more controls are needed and overwhelmingly believe the government has a role to play in regulating AI technology. The majority of life sciences (86%) and healthcare (84%) executives say the government should be involved in regulating AI technology.
And executives across industries are optimistic about the new administration in Washington, D.C., with the majority believing the Biden administration will do more to help advance the adoption of AI in the enterprise.
“We are seeing very high levels of support this year across all industries for more AI regulation. One reason for this may be that, as the technology advances very quickly, insiders want to avoid AI becoming the ‘Wild Wild West.’ Additionally, a more robust regulatory environment may help facilitate commerce. It can help remove unintended barriers that may be the result of other laws or regulations, or due to lack of maturity of legal and technical standards,” said Rob Dwyer, principal, advisory at KPMG, specializing in technology in government.
Healthcare and pharma companies seem to be more bullish on AI than other industries are.
The survey found half of business leaders in industrial manufacturing, retail and tech say AI is moving faster than it should in their industry. Concerns about the speed of AI adoption are particularly pronounced among small companies (63%), business leaders with high AI knowledge (51%) and Gen Z and millennial business leaders (51%).
“Leaders are experiencing COVID-19 whiplash, with AI adoption skyrocketing as a result of the pandemic. But many say it’s moving too fast. That’s probably because of current debate surrounding the ethics, governance and regulation of AI. Many business leaders do not have a view into what their organizations are doing to control and govern AI and may fear risks are developing,” Traci Gusher, principal of artificial intelligence at KPMG, said in a statement.
Future AI investment
Healthcare organizations are ramping up their investments in AI in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a Deloitte survey, nearly 3 in 4 healthcare organizations said they expect to increase their AI funding, with executives citing making processes more efficient as the top outcome they are trying to achieve with AI.
Healthcare executives say current AI investments at their organizations have focused on electronic health record (EHR) management and diagnosis.
To date, the technology has proved its value in reducing errors and improving medical outcomes for patients, according to executives. Around 40% of healthcare executives said AI technology has helped with patient engagement and also to improve clinical quality. About a third of executives said AI has improved administrative efficiency. Only 18% said the technology helped uncover new revenue opportunities.
But AI investments will shift over the next two years to prioritize telemedicine (38%), robotic tasks such as process automation (37%) and delivery of patient care (36%), the survey found. Clinical trials and diagnosis rounded out the top five investment areas.
At life sciences companies, AI is primarily deployed during the drug development process to improve record-keeping and the application process, the survey found. Companies also have leveraged AI to help with clinical trial site selection.
Moving forward, pharmaceutical companies will likely focus their AI investments on discovering new revenue opportunities in the next two years, a pivot from their current strategy focusing on increasing profitability of existing products, according to the survey. About half of life sciences executives say their organizations plan to leverage AI to reduce administrative costs, analyze patient data and accelerate clinical trials.
Industry stakeholders are taking steps to advance the use of AI and machine learning in healthcare.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) created a working group two years ago to develop some standardization on definitions and characteristics of healthcare AI. Last year, the CTA working group developed a standard that creates a common language so industry stakeholders can better understand AI technologies. A group also recently developed a new standard to advance trust in AI solutions.
On the regulatory front, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month released its first AI and machine learning action plan, a multistep approach designed to advance the agency’s management of advanced medical software. The action plan aims to force manufacturers to be more rigorous in their evaluations, according to the FDA.
COVID-19 vaccine makers are under intense pressure to rev up production, but the scale of the challenge is unprecedented — and the speed of production is limited.
Why it matters: Even with help from the federal government and outside companies, vaccine-making is a complex, time-consuming biological process. That limits how quickly companies like Pfizer and Moderna can accelerate their output even during a crisis.
The big picture: With new, more transmissible variants emerging, we’re in a race to get shots into more people’s arms. What would normally take years to set up is being compressed into less than a year, leaving engineers to adapt manufacturing processes on the fly.
“The bottlenecks keeps moving. It keeps changing,” said Chaz Calitri, who leads the COVID-19 vaccine program at Pfizer’s Kalamazoo, Mich., facility.
“It’s a dream project, but at the same time, it’s the weight of the world,” he tells Axios.
Between the lines: Making vaccines is complex, and the process can be hindered at different steps.
“There’s a lot of science and engineering that goes into the manufacturing of any vaccine,” adds Margaret Ruesch, a vice president of Worldwide Research and Development at the company. “It’s molecular biology at a large scale.”
How it works: Axios got a deep dive into the making of Pfizer’s vaccine, a three-phase process that takes weeks from start to finish and involves three different facilities.
1) DNA manufacturing: At a plant near St. Louis, Mo., Pfizer produces DNA that encodes messenger RNA — instructions for cells to make part of the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus. That primes the immune system to defend against future encounters with the virus.
The DNA is produced by bacterial cells, then purified, frozen and shipped to another Pfizer facility in Andover, Mass.
2) Making the mRNA:In Andover, the template DNA is incubated with messenger RNA building blocks in a reactor to make the mRNA. Pfizer has been making two, 40-liter batches per week — up to 10 million doses worth —but expects to double that to four batches per week.
After purification and quality checks, the frozen mRNA is shipped to a Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo, Mich.
3) Formulating the vaccine: In Kalamazoo, the mRNA and lipid nanoparticles (oily envelopes that deliver mRNA to cells in the body) are combined and go through a series of filtrations.
The bulk vaccine is then transferred to sterile vials, capped, inspected, labeled and packed into containers the size of pizza boxes. Those containers are then stored in sub-zero freezers to await shipment to vaccine distribution sites.
Where it stands:Both Pfizer and Moderna say they’re on track to meet their commitments to deliver 200 million doses each to the U.S. over the first half of the year.
Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech recently upped supplies 20% by getting FDA approval to squeeze a sixth dose (instead of five) out of every vial.
Yes, but: Extracting a sixth dose requires the use of specialized syringes, which have their own production constraints, as Reuters explained.
The latest:The Biden administration said last week that it will use its wartime powers under the Defense Production Act to give Pfizer priority access to critical components such as filling pumps and filtration units to try to help address bottlenecks.
Meanwhile, Pfizer continues to tweak its processes to boost output and says it is adding more suppliers and contract manufacturers to the vaccine supply chain.
Novartis, Sanofi and Merck KGaA are among 10 contract manufacturers that will help the company manufacture more doses, a Pfizer spokesman tells Axios.
Pfizer and BioNTech will still do most of the work in their facilities, but contract manufacturers will help with specific tasks like formulating lipid nanoparticles, sterile filling, inspection and packaging.
Ordering other drug manufacturers to stand up manufacturing lines to whip up extra batches of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccines is not an efficient or practical way for the federal government to quickly increase supplies, some experts say.
“Making vaccines is not like making cars, and quality control is paramount,” Stanley Plotkin, a vaccine industry consultant, told Kaiser Health News. “We are expecting other vaccines in a matter of weeks, so it might be faster to bring them into use.”
What to watch:Johnson & Johnson has requested emergency use authorization from the FDA for its single-dose vaccine, but is reportedly lagging in production, the NYT first reported last month.
Four companies that agreed to pay a combined $26 billion to settle claims about their roles in the opioid crisis plan to deduct some of those costs from their taxes and recoup around $1 billion apiece.
In recent months, as details of the blockbuster settlement were still being worked out, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson and the “big three” drug distributors — McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health —all updated their financial projections to include large tax benefits stemming from the expected deal, a Washington Post analysis of regulatory filings found.
In one example, Dublin, Ohio-based drug distributor Cardinal Health said earlier this month it planned to collect a $974 million cash refund because it claimed its opioid-related legal costs as a “net operating loss carryback” — a tax provision Congress included in last year’s coronavirus bailout package as a way of helping companies struggling during the pandemic.
The deductions may deepen public anger toward companies prosecutors say played key roles in a destructive public health crisis that kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. In lawsuits filed by dozens of states and local jurisdictions, public officials have argued that the companies, among other corporate defendants, flooded the country with billions of highly addictive pills and ignored signs they were being steered to people who abused them.
Under the terms of the proposed settlement— which is being finalized and will ultimately be subject to federal court approval — the four companies would pay between $5 billion and $8 billion each to reimburse communities for the costs of the health crisis. Plaintiffs who support the proposal say it will resolve a highly complex litigation process and make funds available to communities and individuals still struggling with addiction.
Others including Greg McNeil, whose son became addicted to opioids and died from an overdose, have said $26 billion is only a small fraction of the epidemic’s financial toll and argue the proposal doesn’t include what many family members of opioid victims want the most: an admission of guilt.
All four firms disavow any wrongdoing or legal responsibility. The companies have said they produced government-approved prescription pills, distributed them to registered pharmacies and took steps to try to prevent their misuse.
U.S. tax laws generally restrict companies from deducting the cost of legal settlements from their taxes, with one major exception: Damages paid to victims as restitution for the misdeeds can usually be deducted. Still, Congress has placed stricter limits on such deductions in recent years, and some tax experts say the Internal Revenue Service could challenge the companies’ attempts to deduct opioid settlement costs.
Harry Cullen, a Brooklyn-based activist who has worked to hold drug companies accountable for the epidemic, said it is “incredibly insulting” that companies would try deduct the settlement payments. “As if they are donating it to these people who they harmed in the first place.”
Erich Timmerman, a spokesman for Cardinal Health, said in a statement that the company’s tax deductions are permissible under federal law. He also pointed to a statement chief executive Mike Kaufmann made in November, when he said Cardinal takes its role in the pharmaceutical supply chain seriously and remains “committed to being part of the solution to this epidemic.”
AmerisourceBergen declined to comment on its taxes but said in a statement the company takes steps to mitigate the diversion of prescription drugs, including by refusing service to customers it sees as a risk and by making daily reports to federal drug officials.
Johnson & Johnson declined to comment on the opioid settlement and tax deductions beyond its regulatory filings.A spokeswoman for McKesson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Cardinal Health’s use of the “carryback” tax break draws attention to what some see as a shortcoming of the $2 trillion U.S. coronavirus bailout known as the Cares Act. In their haste to funnel cash benefits to businesses facing economic peril, lawmakers made billions of dollars in tax breaks broadly available to any company, regardless of whether it suffered during the pandemic.
Cardinal, a company with a $15 billion market capitalization and $4 billion in available cash, surpassed Wall Street expectations for its most recent earnings period. Last week, CEO Kaufmann told investors a rebound in medical treatments and procedures had revived demand for Cardinal’s health devices and drugs. He said the company was boosting its investment in sophisticated supply-chain technology.
On the same day, Cardinal said it was filing for a tax break using the Cares Act provision and expected a nearly $1 billion cash refund from the IRS within the next 12 months. The company plans to pay $6.6 billion in the settlement.
Francine J. Lipman, a tax professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said Cardinal Health appears to be “getting a bit of a windfall from laws that Congress intended to help companies that are suffering due to a pandemic.”
The “carryback” tax break permits any company that lost money in 2018, 2019 or 2020 to apply those losses to previous, more profitable years. Some form of this provision has been permitted by the U.S. tax code for over a century to help businesses that face ups and downs to even out their taxes.
The Cares Act raised the limit on the amount of losses companies can use to offset taxes and permitted them to apply those losses to earlier periods. Because the corporate tax rate was higher before 2018, companies with recent losses can increase tax refunds they received before that year by up to 67 percent.
Cardinal estimated in August it expected to deduct $488 million from the expected opioid legal settlement. But in its Feb. 5 filing, the company said the amount probably would be higher in part because the Cares Act permitted it to carry back losses related to the opioid litigation to previous years when the tax rate was higher.
UNLV’s Lipman said Cardinal’s decision to apply for a tax refund before any legal settlement has been finalized could face scrutiny from the IRS. Deductions must be made against business expenses that are shown to have “economic effect,” she said, which may preclude deductions against future, unpaid legal settlements.
Timmerman, Cardinal’s spokesman, said the company has already recorded a loss related to the opioid litigation because Cardinal insures itself through a wholly-owned insurance subsidiary. The opioid litigation caused a loss to the insurance company’s reserve, and that is the loss that Cardinal is deducting, he said.
“Tax and accounting rules applicable to insurance companies, including self-insurance companies, require recognition of loss when an insurance reserve is set, thus establishing economic effect, even if the underlying settlement is not final,” Timmerman said.
The three other companies involved in the $26 billion settlement have estimated the tax benefits of the deal but have not filed for tax refunds. They all said the tax benefits could be lower if courts or regulators determined some or all of the payments are not tax-deductible.
McKesson, which expects to pay $8.1 billion in the settlement, said in a Feb. 2 filing that the actual cost of the deal would be $6.7 billion after taxes, implying a $1.4 billion tax benefit. The company also said $497 million in tax benefits were “uncertain” because of the “uncertainty in connection with the deductibility of opioid related litigation and claims.”
AmerisourceBergen, which anticipates a $6.6 billion settlement payment, said in November it expects a $1.1 billion tax benefit. The company said an additional $371.5 million tax benefit was possible but “uncertain.”
“A settlement has not been reached, and, therefore, we applied significant judgment in estimating the ultimate amount of the opioid litigation settlement that would be deductible,” the company said.
Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, said these disclaimers suggest the companies are making conservative estimates. “That’s one way of saying they are likely going to claim even bigger tax benefits in their tax returns than they are showing on their financial statements,” he said.
Whether the payments will be deductible may hinge on specific word choices in the final terms of the settlement. Though recent changes to the tax code have attempted to close loopholes that permit companies to deduct taxes when they have committed wrongdoing, many companies now push to make sure their settlements include a “restitution” payment for victims — the “magic word” that often qualifies them for deductions, Gardner said.
In previous opioid-related settlements local governments reached with McKesson, Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals, the companies admitted no fault and agreed to restitution payments that appeared to qualify them for tax deductions, USA Today reported in 2019.
Johnson & Johnsonhas said it expects it could deduct as much as 21.4 percent of its $5 billion share of the settlement, which would mean a roughly $1.1 billion tax benefit. However, the company said last summer that the deductible amount may be lower if a regulation proposed by the IRS last year came into effect.
The rule, which did take effect Jan. 20, requires companies to meet a long list of specific criteria to qualify government settlements for tax deductions.
In 2019, The Post analyzed a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration that tracks the path of every pain pill sold in the United States. The database shows that America’s largest drug companies distributed 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills across the country between 2006 and 2012 as the nation’s deadliest drug epidemic spun out of control.
McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen distributed 44 percent of the nation’s oxycodone and hydrocodone pills — the two most abused prescription opioid drugs — during that time.
An investigation by The Post last year found that near the peak of U.S. opioid production, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary was manufacturing enough oxycodone and hydrocodone to capture half or more of the U.S. market. The company also lobbied for years to help persuade regulators to loosen a narcotics import rule, allowing Johnson & Johnson’s U.S. subsidiary to produce rising amounts of opioids out of potent poppies harvested by its Tasmanian subsidiary, The Post found.
Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson have said its opioid-producing subsidiaries did not cause the United States’ addiction crisis, that the companies were heavily regulated, and that such companies play only a “peripheral role in the multibillion-dollar market for prescription opioids.”
As happened with cars in the 1960s, price competition among brand-name drugs is hard to find.
Before 1973, when the Arab oil embargo upended the U.S. auto industry, Americans witnessed an annual ritual by carmakers. In the late summer, the Big Three — Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors — would release sticker prices for their products, always showing increases, of course.
Almost always, the increases from each company for similar models were nearly identical. If one company’s was out of line — substantially bigger or smaller than its erstwhile competitors’ — it quickly made an adjustment. Explicit collusion to fix prices was never proven, but the effect for consumers was the same.
Now, researchers report that something very similar seems to be occurring for big-market brand-name drugs, including anti-diabetic medications and blood thinners.
Average wholesale prices for products in five classes — direct-acting oral anticoagulants (DOACs), P2Y12 inhibitors, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) agonists, dipeptidyl dipeptidase-4 (DPP-4) inhibitors, and sodium-glucose transport protein-2 (SGLT-2) inhibitors — increased in “lock-step” each year from 2015 to 2020, according to Joseph Ross, MD, of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and colleagues writing in JAMA Network Open.
These increases ranged from annual averages of 6.6% for DDP4 inhibitors to 13.5% for P2Y12 inhibitors — far outpacing not only inflation in general, but even the 2.1% average for all prescription drugs.
Within each class, Kendall τb correlation coefficients for average wholesale prices were as follows:
SGLT-2 inhibitors: 0.98
DPP-4 inhibitors: 0.96
GLP-1 agonists: 0.92
P2Y12 inhibitors: 0.75
“These results suggest there was little price competition among the sponsors of these products,” Ross and colleagues wrote.
Although the analysis came with significant limitations — it didn’t account for rebates or other discounts, for example — the researchers said some patients must suffer from these increases.
“Rebates, list prices, and net prices have been growing for brand-name medications, and rebate growth has been shown to positively correlate with list price growth, thereby impacting costs faced by patients paying a percentage of (or the full) list price,“ the group noted. “Therefore, the lock-step price increases of brand-name medications, without evidence of price competition, raise concerns and would be expected to adversely affect patient adherence to medications and thus clinical outcomes.”
For the car buyers, the solution to lock-step price increases was imposed from outside: soaring gas prices in the mid-1970s prompted demand for vehicles with better fuel economy than domestic makers were prepared to sell. That opened the market to Japanese cars that not only got better mileage, but were also more reliable and (in many cases) cheaper than Big Three products. Thus ended Detroit’s ability to set prices.
How to rein in Big Pharma is less clear. For their part, Ross and colleagues suggested policies to limit such lock-step price hikes, shortened patent exclusivity periods, and faster introduction of generic equivalents.
Drug companies AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly and Sanofi filed separate lawsuits seeking to preserve their ability to restrict offering 340B-discounted drugs to contract pharmacies.
The lawsuits, filed Tuesday in different federal courts, seek to get rid of an advisory opinion filed by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’) general counsel that says drug companies must offer 340B drugs to contract pharmacies, which are third-party entities that dispense drugs on behalf of hospitals participating in the program.
The drug companies argue that the advisory opinion contracts the statute for the 340B program, which requires manufacturers to offer discounted products to safety net hospitals and other providers in exchange for participation in Medicare and Medicaid.
“The statute, on its face, does not require manufacturers to recognize any contract pharmacies, much less unlimited contract pharmacies,” the legal filing from AstraZeneca said.
AstraZeneca wants a federal court to declare the advisory opinion didn’t follow proper procedure and exceeded HHS’ statutory authority. The manufacturer also wants a court to declare that companies are not required to offer 340B discounts to contract pharmacies.
The lawsuits come less than a week after the American Hospital Association (AHA) and five other groups and three individual systems sent letters to the drug companies that have halted or restricted sales to contract pharmacies. They wanted the drugmakers to reinstate sending the discounted products to their pharmacies and reimburse facilities for any damages.
AHA and several groups sued HHS to get the agency to clamp down on the drug manufacturers’ moves.
AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Sanofi and United Therapeutics have taken a range of actions to clamp down on sales to contract pharmacies, which a majority of 340B-covered entities use.
The companies have argued that the discounts do not filter down to patients, but hospital and advocacy groups charge that the discounts are vital, especially as safety net providers operate on thin margins.
“Make no mistake: the boom in contract pharmacies has been fueled by the prospect of outsized profit margins on 340B discounted drugs,”AstraZeneca argued in its court filing.
Sitting in the dark before 6 am in my Los Angeles house with my face lit up by yet another Zoom screen, wearing a stylish combination of sweatpants, dress shirt and last year’s JPM conference badge dangling around my neck for old times’ sake, I wonder at the fact that it’s J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference week again and we are where we are. Quite a year for all of us – the pandemic, the healthcare system’s response to the public health emergency, the ongoing fight for racial justice, the elections, the storming of the Capital – and the subject of healthcare winds its way through all of it – public health, our healthcare system’s stability, strengths and weaknesses, the highly noticeable healthcare inequities, the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and vaccines, healthcare politics and what the new administration will bring as healthcare initiatives.
I will miss seeing you all in person this year at the J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference and our annual Sheppard Mullin reception – previously referred to as “standing room only” events and now as “possible superspreader events.” What a difference a year makes. I admit that I will miss the feeling of excitement in the rooms and hallways of the Westin St. Francis and all of the many hotel lobbies and meeting rooms surrounding it. Somehow the virtual conference this year lacks that je ne sais quoi of being stampeded by rushing New York-style street traffic while in an antiquated San Francisco hotel hallway and watching the words spoken on stage transform immediately into sharp stock price increases and drops. There also is the excitement of sitting in the room listening to paradigm shifting ideas (teaser – read the last paragraph of this post for something truly fascinating). Perhaps next year, depending on the vaccine…
So, let’s start there. Today was vaccine day at the JPM Conference, with BioNTech, Moderna, Novovax and Johnson & Johnson all presenting. Lots of progress reported by all of the companies working on vaccines, but the best news of the day was the comment from BioNTech that the UK and South Africa coronavirus variants likely are still covered by the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. BioNTech’s CEO, Prof. Uğur Şahin, M.D., promised more data and analysis to be published shortly on that.
We also saw continued excitement for mRNA vaccines, not only for COVID-19 but also for other diseases. There is a growing focus (following COVID-19 of course) on vaccines for cancer through use of neoantigen targets, and for a long list of infectious disease targets.For cancer, though, there continues to be a growing debate over whether the best focus is on “personalized” vaccines or “off the shelf” vaccines – personalized vaccines can take longer to make and have much, much higher costs and infrastructure requirements. We expect, however, to see very exciting news on the use of mRNA and other novel technologies in the next year or two that, when approved and put into commercialization, could radically change the game, not only as to mortality, but also by eliminating or significantly reducing the cost of care with chronic conditions (which some cancers have become, thanks to technological advancement). We are fortunate to be in that gap now between “care” and “cure,” where we have been able with modern medical advances to convert many more disease states into manageable chronic care conditions. Together with today’s longer lifespans, that, however, carries a much higher price tag for our healthcare system. Now, with some of these recent announcements, we look forward to moving from “care” to “cure” and substantially dropping the cost of care to our healthcare system.
Continuing consolidation also was a steady drumbeat underlying the multiple presentations today on the healthcare services side of the conference – health plans, health systems, physician organizations, home health. The drive to scale continues, as we have seen from the accelerated pace of mergers and acquisitions in the second half of 2020, which continues unabated in January 2021. There was today’s announcement of the acquisition by Amerisource Bergen of Walgreens Boots Alliance’s Alliance Healthcare wholesale business (making Walgreens Boots Alliance the largest single shareholder of Amerisource Bergen at nearly 30% ownership), following the announcement last week of Centene’s acquisition of Magellan Health (coming fast on the heels of Molina Healthcare’s purchase of Magellan’s Complete Care line of business).
On the mental health side – a core focus area for Magellan Health – Centene’s Chief Executive Officer, Michael Neidorff, expressed the common theme that we have been seeing in the past year that mental health care should be integrated and coordinated with primary and specialty care. He also saw value in Magellan’s strong provider network, as access to mental health providers can be a challenge in some markets and populations. The behavioral/mental health sector likely will see increased attention and consolidation in the coming year, especially given its critical role during the COVID-19 crisis and also with the growing Medicaid and Medicare populations.There are not a lot of large assets left independent in the mental health sector (aside from inpatient providers, autism/developmental disorder treatment programs, and substance abuse residential and outpatient centers), so we may see more roll-up focus (such as we have seen recently with the autism/ABA therapy sector) and technology-focused solutions (text-based or virtual therapy).
There was strong agreement among the presenting health plans and capitated providers (Humana, Centene, Oak Street and multiple health systems) today that we will continue to see movement toward value-based care (VBC) and risk-based reimbursement systems, such as Medicare Advantage, Medicare direct contracting and other CMS Innovation Center (CMMI) programs and managed Medicaid. Humana’s Chief Executive Officer, Bruce Broussard, said that the size of the MA program has grown so much since 2010 that it now represents an important voting bloc and one of the few ways in which the federal government currently is addressing healthcare inequities – e.g., through Over-the-Counter (OTC) pharmacy benefits, benefits focused on social determinants of health (SDOH), and healthcare quality improvements driven by the STARS rating program. Broussard also didn’t think Medicare Advantage would be a negative target for the Biden administration and expected more foreseeable and ordinary-course regulatory adjustments, rather than wholesale legislative change for Medicare Advantage.
There also was agreement on the exciting possibility of direct contracting for Medicare lives at risk under the CMMI direct contracting initiative. Humana expressed possible interest in both this year’s DCE program models and in the GEO regional risk-based Medicare program model that will be rolling out in the next year. Humana sees this as both a learning experience and as a way to apply their chronic care management skills and proprietary groups and systems to a broader range of applicable populations and markets. There is, however, a need for greater clarity and transparency from CMMI on program details which can substantially affect success and profitability of these initiatives.
Humana, Centene and Oak Street all sang the praises of capitated medical groups for Medicare Advantage and, per Michael Neidorff, the possibility of utilizing traditional capitated provider models for Medicaid membership as well. The problem, as noted by the speakers, is that there is a scarcity of independent capitated medical groups and a lack of physician familiarity and training. We may see a more committed effort by health plans to move their network provider groups more effectively into VBC and risk, much like we have seen Optum do with their acquired fee for service groups. Privia Health also presented today and noted that, while the market focus and high valuations today are accorded to Medicare lives, attention needs to be paid to the “age in” pipeline, as commercial patients who enroll in original Medicare and Medicare Advantage still would like to keep their doctors who saw them under commercial insurance. Privia’s thesis in part is to align with patients early on and retain them and their physicians, so as to create a “farm system” for accelerated Medicare population growth. Privia’s Chief Executive Officer, Shawn Morris, also touted Privia’s rapid growth, in part attributable to partnering with health systems.
As written in our notes from prior JPM healthcare conferences, health systems are continuing to look outside to third parties to gain knowledge base, infrastructure and management skills for physician VBC and risk arrangements. Privia cited their recent opening of their Central Florida market in partnership with Health First and rapid growth in providers by more than 25% in their first year of operations.
That being said, the real market sizzle remains with Medicare Advantage and capitation, percent of premium arrangements and global risk. The problem for many buyers, though, is that there are very few assets of size in this line of business. The HealthCare Partners/DaVita Medical Group acquisition by Optum removed that from the market, creating a high level of strategic and private equity demand and a low level of supply for physician organizations with that expertise. That created a focus on groups growing rapidly in this risk paradigm and afforded them strong valuation, like with Oak Street Health this past year as it completed its August 2020 initial public offering. Oak Street takes on both professional and institutional (hospital) risk and receives a percent of premium from its contracting health plans. As Oak Street’s CEO Mike Pykosz noted, only about 3% of Medicare dollars are spent on primary care, while approximately two-thirds are spent on hospital services. If more intensive management occurs at the primary care level and, as a result, hospitalizations can be prevented or reduced, that’s an easy win that’s good for the patient and the entire healthcare system (other than a fee for service based hospital).Pykosz touted his model of building out new centers from scratch as allowing greater conformity, control and efficacy than buying existing groups and trying to conform them both physically and through practice approaches to the Oak Street model. He doesn’t rule out some acquisitions, but he noted as an example that Oak Street was able to swiftly role out COVID-19 protocols rapidly and effectively throughout his centers because they all have the same physical configuration, the same staffing ratio and the same staffing profiles. Think of it as a “franchise” model where each Subway store, for example, will have generally the same look, feel, size and staffing. He also noted that while telehealth was very helpful during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 and will continue as long as the doctors and patients wish, Oak Street believes that an in-person care management model is much more effective and telehealth is better for quick follow-ups or when in-person visits can’t occur.
Oak Street also spoke to the topic of Medicare Advantage member acquisition, which has been one of the more difficult areas to master for many health plans and groups, resulting in many cases with mergers and acquisitions becoming a favored growth vehicle due to the difficulties of organic membership growth. Interestingly, both Oak Street and Humana reported improvements in membership acquisition during the COVID-19 crisis. Oak Street credited digital marketing and direct response television, among other factors. Humana found that online direct-to-consumer brokers became an effective pathway during the COVID-19 crisis and focused its energy on enhancing those relationships and improving hand-offs during the membership enrollment process. Humana also noted the importance of brand in Medicare Advantage membership marketing.
Staying with Medicare Advantage, there is an expectation of a decrease in Medicare risk adjustment revenue in 2021, in large part due to the lower healthcare utilization during the COVID crisis and the lesser number of in-person visits during which HCC-RAF Medicare risk adjustment coding typically occurs. That revenue drop however likely will not significantly decrease Medicare Advantage profitability though, given the concomitant drop in healthcare expenses due to lower utilization, and per conference reports, is supposed to return to normal trend in 2022 (unless we see utilization numbers fall back below 90% again). Other interesting economic notes from several presentations, when taken together, suggest that while many health systems have lost out on elective surgery revenue in 2020, their case mix index (CMI) in many cases has been much higher due to the COVID patient cases. We also saw a number of health systems with much lower cash days on hand numbers than other larger health systems (both in gross and after adjusting for federal one-time stimulus cash payments), as a direct result of COVID. This supports the thesis we are hearing that, with the second wave of COVID being higher than expected, in the absence of further federal government financial support to hospitals, we likely will see an acceleration of partnering and acquisition transactions in the hospital sector.
Zoetis, one of the largest animal health companies, gave an interesting presentation today on its products and service lines. In addition to some exciting developments re: monoclonal antibody treatments coming on line for dogs with pain from arthritis, Zoetis also discussed its growing laboratory and diagnostics line of business. The animal health market, sometime overshadowed by the human healthcare market, is seeing some interesting developments as new revenue opportunities and chronic care management paradigms (such as for renal care) are shifting in the animal health sector. This is definitely a sector worth watching.
We also saw continuing interest, even in the face of Congressional focus this past year, on growing pharmacy benefit management (PBM) companies, which are designed to help manage the pharmacy spend. Humana listed growth of its PBM and specialty pharmacy lines of business as a focus for 2021, along with at-home care. In its presentation today, SSM Health, a health system in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Missouri, spotlighted Navitus, its PBM, which services 7 million covered lives in 50 states.
One of the most different, interesting and unexpected presentations of the day came from Paul Markovich, Chief Executive Officer of Blue Shield of California. He put forth the thesis that we need to address the flat or negative productivity in healthcare today in order to both reduce total cost of care, improve outcomes and to help physicians, as well as to rescue the United States from the overbearing economic burden of the current healthcare spending. Likening the transformation in healthcare to that which occurred in the last two decades with financial services (remember before ATMs and banking apps, there were banker’s hours and travelers cheques – remember those?), he described exciting pilot projects that reimagine healthcare today. One project is a real-time claims adjudication and payment program that uses smart watches to record physician/patient interactions, natural language processing (NLP) to populate the electronic medical record, transform the information concurrently into a claim, adjudicate it and authorize payment. That would massively speed up cash flow to physician practices, reduce paperwork and many hours of physician EMR and billing time and reduce the billing and collection overhead and burden. It also could substantially reduce healthcare fraud.
Paul Markovich also spoke to the need for real-time quality information that can result in real-time feedback and incentivization to physicians and other providers, rather than the costly and slow HEDIS pursuits we see today. One health plan noted that it spends about $500 million a year going into physician offices looking at medical records for HEDIS pursuits, but the information is totally “in the rearview mirror” as it is too old when finally received and digested to allow for real-time treatment changes, improvement or planning. Markovich suggested four initiatives (including the above, pay for value and shared decision making through better, more open data access) that he thought could save $100 billion per year for the country.Markovich stressed that all of these four initiatives required a digital ecosystem and asked for help and partnership in creating one. He also noted that the State of California is close to creating a digital mandate and statewide health information exchange that could be the launching point for this exciting vision of data sharing and a digital ecosystem where the electronic health record is the beginning, but not the end of the healthcare data journey.
Lown Institute berates greedy pricing, ethical lapses, wallet biopsies, and avoidable shortages.
Greedy corporations, uncaring hospitals, individual miscreants, and a task force led by Jared Kushner were dinged Tuesday in the Lown Institute‘s annual Shkreli awards, a list of the top 10 worst offenders for 2020.
Named after Martin Shkreli, the entrepreneur who unapologetically raised the price of an anti-parasitic drug by a factor of 56 in 2015 (now serving a federal prison term for unrelated crimes), the list of shame calls out what Vikas Saini, the institute’s CEO, called “pandemic profiteers.” (Lown bills itself as “a nonpartisan think tank advocating bold ideas for a just and caring system for health.”)
Topping the listwas the federal government itself and Jared Kushner, President’s Trump’s son-in-law, who led a personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement task force. The effort, called Project Airbridge, was to “airlift PPE from overseas and bring it to the U.S. quickly,” which it did.
“But rather than distribute the PPE to the states, FEMA gave these supplies to six private medical supply companies to sell to the highest bidder, creating a bidding war among the states,” Saini said. Though these supplies were supposed to go to designated pandemic hotspots, “no officials from the 10 hardest hit counties” said they received PPE from Project Airbridge. In fact, federal agencies outbid states or seized supplies that states had purchased, “making it much harder and more expensive” for states to get supplies, he said.
Number twoon the institute’s list: vaccine maker Moderna, which received nearly $1 billion in federal funds to develop its mRNA COVID-19 preventive. It set a price of between $32 and $37 per dose, more than the U.S. agreed to pay for other COVID vaccines. “Although the U.S. has placed an order for $1.5 billion worth of doses at a discount, a price of $15 per dose, given the upfront investment by the U.S. government, we are essentially paying for the vaccine twice,” said Lown Institute Senior Vice President Shannon Brownlee.
Webcast panelist Don Berwick, MD, former acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, noted that a lot of work went into producing the vaccine at an impressive pace, “and if there’s not an immune breakout, we’re going to be very grateful that this happened.” But, he added, “I mean, how much money is enough? Maybe there needs to be some real sense of discipline and public spirit here that goes way beyond what any of these companies are doing.”
In third place: four California hospital systems that refused to take COVID-19 patients or delayed transfers from hospitals that were out of beds.A Wall Street Journal investigation found that these refusals or delays were based on the patients’ ability to pay; many were on Medicaid or were uninsured.
“In the midst of such a pandemic, to continue that sort of behavior is mind boggling,” said Saini. “This is more than the proverbial wallet biopsy.”
The remaining seven offenders:
4. Poor nursing homes decisions, especially one by Soldiers’ Home for Veterans in western Massachusetts, that worsened an already terrible situation. At Soldiers’ Home, management decided to combine the COVID-19 unit with a dementia unit because they were low on staff, said Brownlee. That allowed the virus to spread rapidly, killing 76 residents and staff as of November. Roughly one-third of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been in long-term care facilities.
5. Pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson,which refused to share intellectual property on COVID-19, instead deciding to “compete for their profits instead,” Saini said. The envisioned technology access pool would have made participants’ discoveries openly available “to more easily develop and distribute coronavirus treatments, vaccines, and diagnostics.”
Saini added that he was was most struck by such an attitude of “historical blindness or tone deafness” at a time when the pandemic is roiling every single country.
Berwick asked rhetorically, “What would it be like if we were a world in which a company like Pfizer or Moderna, or the next company that develops a really great breakthrough, says on behalf of the well-being of the human race, we will make this intellectual property available to anyone who wants it?”
6. Elizabeth Nabel, MD, CEO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, because she defended high drug prices as a necessity for innovation in an op-ed, without disclosing that she sat on Moderna’s board. In that capacity, she received $487,500 in stock options and other payments in 2019. The value of those options quadrupled on the news of Moderna’s successful vaccine. She sold $8.5 million worth of stock last year, after its value nearly quadrupled. She resigned from Moderna’s board in July and, it was announced Tuesday, is leaving her CEO position to join a biotech company founded by her husband.
7. Hospitals that punished clinicians for “scaring the public,” suspending or firing them, because they “insisted on wearing N95 masks and other protective equipment in the hospital,” said Saini. Hospitals also fired or threatened to fire clinicians for speaking out on COVID-19 safety issues, such as the lack of PPE and long test turnaround times.
Webcast panelist Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, the Flint, Michigan, pediatrician who exposed the city’s water contamination, said that healthcare workers “have really been abandoned in this administration” and that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration “has pretty much fallen asleep at the wheel.” She added that workers in many industries such as meatpacking and poultry processing “have suffered tremendously from not having the protections or regulations in place to protect [them].”
8. Connecticut internist Steven Murphy, MD, who ran COVID-19 testing sites for several towns, but conducted allegedly unnecessary add-ons such as screening for 20 other respiratory pathogens. He also charged insurers $480 to provide results over the phone, leading to total bills of up to $2,000 per person.
“As far as I know, having an MD is not a license to steal, and this guy seemed to think that it was,” said Brownlee.
“Colloidal silver has no known health benefits and can cause seizures and organ damage. Oleandrin is a biological extract from the oleander plant and known for its toxicity and ingesting it can be deadly,” said Saini.
Others named by the Lown Institute include Jennings Ryan Staley, MD — now under indictment — who ran the “Skinny Beach Med Spa” in San Diego which sold so-called COVID treatment packs containing hydroxychloroquine, antibiotics, Xanax, and Viagra, all for $4,000.
Berwick commented that such schemes indicate a crisis of confidence in science, adding that without facts and science to guide care, “patients get hurt, costs rise without any benefit, and confusion reigns, and COVID has made that worse right now.”
Brownlee mentioned the “huge play” that hydroxychloroquine received and the FDA’s recent record as examples of why confidence in science has eroded.
10. Two private equity-owned companies that provide physician staffing for hospitals, Team Health and Envision, that cut doctors’ pay during the first COVID-19 wave while simultaneously spending millions on political ads to protect surprise billing practices. And the same companies also received millions in COVID relief funds under the CARES Act.
Berwick said surprise billing by itself should receive a deputy Shkreli award, “as out-of-pocket costs to patients have risen dramatically and even worse during the COVID pandemic… and Congress has failed to act. It’s time to fix this one.”
Their Senate majority will be slim as can be, and their margin for error in the House is also quite small. So it’s not going to be easy to get anything done. But it seems likely that the Biden White House and a Democratic Congress will try to pass legislation to expand health coverage.
Regarding what Democrats’ health care agenda would look like if the party enjoyed full control of Congress and the White House, a senior party official told reporters this fall: “If we don’t take full advantage of this moment, we’ll be making a huge mistake.”
The question is how big they will go. A lengthy health care section will likely be part of any new Covid-19 relief and recovery bill. But will that be the end of it, or do Democrats want to try to pass another health care plan through budget reconciliation? Given Senate rules, that process is probably their best chance of passing a major bill.
Taking a cue from my Future Perfect colleagues and their 21 predictions for 2021, I thought I would lay out some of my expectations for the coming two years of health policy. These projections are based on my own reporting, but they are not meant to be definitive — and nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. It’s more like a list of issues I’ll be watching.
Democrats will expand eligibility for Obamacare subsidies: 85 percent chance
Democrats could attempt to take two bites at the health care apple: first as part of a Covid-19 relief bill, and second in a budget reconciliation package that can pass with a bare majority. I think there is a very strong chance both attempts would end up with provisions expanding eligibility for insurance tax subsidies.
The $2.4 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House, a likely starting point for Covid-19 negotiations between the House and the Senate, would have made anybody currently on unemployment insurance eligible for premium tax credits. That would help people who have lost their employer-sponsored coverage afford a new health care plan. A provision like that is likely to become part of whatever Covid-19 bill Congress comes up with.
A reconciliation bill could make that change permanent and universal. Back in spring 2020, Senate Democrats released a list of their health care priorities in response in response to Covid-19. At the top was a plan to raise the current cutoff for Obamacare subsidies, which stands at 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
Under current law, anybody with an annual income above that threshold, which is about $51,000 for an individual or $87,000 for a family of three, is ineligible for any assistance. Democrats have introduced plans to expand eligibility, either by doubling the income cap to 800 percent of the federal poverty level (like in this bill from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) or by eliminating it entirely so that nobody pays more than a fixed percentage of their income on health insurance (as President-elect Joe Biden proposed). Democrats could also try to make low-income people in states that have not expanded Medicaid eligible for tax credits to buy private coverage.
The people squeezed under Obamacare have been the ones ineligible for the law’s financial aid. Expanding eligibility could insure up to 4 million people, and it seems like the bare minimum Democrats would want to do on health care with their new power.
The public option won’t be part of a Democratic health care bill: 75 percent chance
Much like the 2009 debate over Obamacare, a new government insurance plan would probably be the most hotly debated proposal if Democrats try to approve a major health care bill. Biden embraced the public option in his campaign, but passing it won’t be easy — in fact, I think it’s more likely than not that it doesn’t happen.
One problem for a public option is budget reconciliation. Unless Democrats are willing to eliminate the 60-vote legislative filibuster, they’ll have to use this special procedural tool in order to pass a bill with just 51 votes.
But budget reconciliation comes with limits on what provisions can be included, narrowly targeted to federal spending, and creating this new program may not qualify. Capital Alpha, a health care policy analysis group, thinks there is “virtually zero chance” a public option like that proposed by Biden during his campaign would be enacted because it likely doesn’t satisfy the reconciliation rules.
Progressives will push Democratic leadership to be as aggressive in pursuing a public option as possible, including in how they handle those procedural limits. But the moderate Senate Democrats who will ultimately dictate what the final package will look like have sounded ambivalent about the public option, and Democrats are wary of the party getting dragged into a messy health care fight.
Support for a public option would be substantial — about 70 percent of Americans say they’re for it, polls show — but so would the opposition. The health care industry will surely mobilize against the plan if Democrats look serious about pursuing it.
I suspect that, either because the moderates rule it out from the start or Democratic leaders balk at a drawn-out health care debate, politics will take the policy off the table.
Democrats will approve Medicare negotiations for prescription drugs: 55 percent chance
Democrats have campaigned for several election cycles now on a promise to give Medicare more power to negotiate drug prices with pharma companies. This promise was a part of the drug pricing bill that House Democrats passed in the last Congress, a plan that was estimated to cut federal spending by $456 billion over 10 years.
Savings are the reason the policy could be handy for Democrats in crafting a budget reconciliation plan. Democrats will need to include provisions that save the government money to help pay for the new provisions that cost money, like expanding eligibility for tax subsidies.
“We have long believed that pharma faces the greatest risk of drug pricing reforms in conjunction with Democrats’ efforts to expand coverage,” Capital Alpha wrote in a recent analysis.
Those twin incentives — delivering on a campaign promise and finding offsets — could help overcome what would surely be fierce industry opposition.
But the politics of drug pricing have shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is why I think there’s only a slightly better than even chance that Congress will approve Medicare negotiations. Pharma has delivered the Covid-19 vaccines in record time, improving the industry’s relationship with the public in the process. This, in turn, has lowered expectations among the experts for how aggressive Democrats will be on drug prices.
“I think now you don’t have all those stories about insulin and EpiPen, plus you have positive stories about vaccines and other drugs,” Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, told me in December. “You don’t have as fertile an environment for more extreme drug measures.”
Thus, my feeling that the odds for Medicare negotiations are closer to 50/50.