Notes for the 39th Annual J.P Morgan Healthcare Conference, 2021

https://www.sheppardhealthlaw.com/articles/healthcare-industry-news/

2021 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference | Zoetis

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.

Centene’s $2.2B deal for Magellan adds focus on behavioral health

Dive Brief:

  • Centene has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Phoenix, Arizona-based Magellan Health for $2.2 billion, or $95 per share, the payer said Monday. Magellan will operate independently under the Centene umbrella.
  • Executives said the combination will result in one of the nation’s largest behavioral health platforms as the two will provide behavioral services to about 41 million members in the U.S.
  • The deal also boosts Centene’s already established footprint in government sponsored health plans with the addition of 5.5 million lives and another 2.2 million to add to its pharmacy benefit management platform.

Dive Insight:

The deal is designed to boost Centene’s ability to market a “whole health” approach for its members. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to care for more than just a member’s physical health by also caring for their mental health, the company said Monday.

“This has become even more evident in light of the pandemic which has driven a dramatic rise in behavioral health needs,” Centene CEO Michael Neidorff said in statement. Both boards unanimously approved the deal.

Magellan Health provides managed care and pharmacy services for an array of clients that include health plans, unions and third-party administrators. Centene has been a client of Magellan’s in years past.

Magellan leans on analytics and other technologies in an attempt to improve health outcomes and lower costs. In addition to behavioral health, Magellan focuses on high-cost or complex patients for its clients. In its presentation to investors on Monday, Centene said 71% of total healthcare costs in the U.S. are spent on complex patients, illustrating the need for the deal.

For its healthcare management services, Magellan typically enters into risk-based contracts with its clients where it assumes all or a substantial portion of the risk in exchange for a per member, per month fee. Or, Magellan will enter into an administrative services only agreement in which it reviews utilization and claims administration and manages provider networks, according to its latest 10-Q filing.

The deal is expected to close in the second half of the year pending regulatory approvals. CEO Ken Fasola and other Magellan executives will continue their leadership roles.

Last year, Centene completed its blockbuster acquisition of rival WellCare, a $17 billion deal that catapulted the company to the fourth-largest insurer by membership when including Aetna, which is now part of CVS Health. The deal also doubled Centene’s Medicare Advantage footprint. Centene’s core business is Medicaid managed care and it is the largest insurer on the Affordable Care Act exchanges.

How will Covid-19 affect employers’ healthcare costs? It depends, says PwC report

https://medcitynews.com/2020/06/how-will-covid-19-affect-employers-healthcare-costs-it-depends-says-pwc-report/?utm_campaign=MCN%20Daily%20Top%20Stories&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=90212485&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_yxVYJ-KPqLWePqF49EqIVP4Ca8AfsO5zVEzr3oseXQAZKeZI4EpC67d02dlcVim6PhZfM–3Kbpb8tmDBXhD-xatSIQ&utm_content=90212485&utm_source=hs_email

How will Covid-19 affect employers' healthcare costs? It depends ...

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers said employer spending on healthcare could increase anywhere from 4% to 10% next year. The report highlighted three potential scenarios depending on what happens with the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic slowdown strain company budgets, employers are trying to calculate how much they will spend on healthcare next year. Soon, they will be picking health plans for 2021, and the pandemic will certainly go into that calculus.

A new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers attempts to forecast healthcare costs for next year. But there are still lots of unknowns. According to the report, the medical cost trend could increase between 4% and 10% in 2021.

Researchers with PwC’s Health Research Institute interviewed health plan actuaries from 12 national and regional payers over the past three months. The consensus? They were still unsure about the pandemic’s effect on spending now and what it will mean for 2021.

PwC considered three potential scenarios:

  • If healthcare spending remains down in 2021, PwC expects a 4% medical cost trend
  • If spending continues to grow at the same rate that it has from 2014 to 2019, PwC forecasts a 6% medical cost trend
  • If spending increases significantly next year in part due to pent-up demand from delayed care during the pandemic, PwC forecasts a 10% medical cost trend.

Employers are already considering measures to reduce their costs next year. For instance, a growing number are looking at narrow-network plans as a way of negotiating down prices.

“As the pandemic continues and the economic pressures increase, the shift towards narrow network will likely continue and accelerate,” PwC Health Research Institute Leader Ben Isgur wrote in an email.

In particular, large companies with more than 5,000 employees are more likely to consider this strategy, with 25% offering narrow-network plans, according to a 2019 survey by PwC.

Walmart is a recent example. The company began offering “curated physician networks” in Arkansas, Florida and Texas in 2020. In March, the company indicated it would expand on its network strategies.

More companies are also expanding their telehealth services, in part a direct result of the pandemic. While this may not save them money in the short-term — most insurers are currently reimbursing the same for telehealth visits as in-office visits — in the long term, it is expected to reduce costs.

“Employers understand the benefits of telehealth including lower costs, easier access, less time away from work and a good consumer experience,” Isgur wrote. “89 percent of employers surveyed by PwC in spring 2019 offered telemedicine either through their medical vendor or a carve-out vendor, up from 56 percent in 2016. Over the past few months, we have seen telehealth accelerate even faster.”

A couple of ongoing factors could increase spending next year. Employers are adding mental health services to their health plans, and have seen increased demand for those services, especially in light of the pandemic. According to a recent survey by the Health Research Institute, 12% of individuals on employer plans said they had sought mental health services, and another 18% planned to do so.

Specialty drug spending is also expected to drive up costs, as the majority of pharmaceuticals planned for release next year are specialty drugs. This is not a new trend; of companies’ total drug spending, specialty drugs grew from 21% of the total in 2010 to 58% in 2017.

Many patients have delayed care as a result of the pandemic. Even as medical offices begin to offer in-person visits again, volumes are still down. It’s still too early to tell whether that will lead to a surge in spending next year due to postponed — but needed — procedures.

According to PwC, 22% of patients with employer-sponsored insurance have delayed care since March.

“We could see the population risk increase for 2021 if members with chronic conditions are not able to manage their health as effectively in 2020 due to Covid-19,” Amy Yao, senior vice president and chief actuary at Blue Shield of California, told PwC’s Health Research Institute.

 

 

 

 

COVID-19 Implications for pharma: US payer insights

https://www.healtheconomics.com/resource/covid-19-implications-for-pharma-us-payer-insights

What are the implications for pharma as COVID-19 forces fundamental change in US payer practice and policy?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a unique set of challenges for US payers. In the short-term emergency healthcare packages have included increasing patient access to medicines, waiving co-pays, relaxing prior approval requirements and increasing telemedicine services. But longer term? The commercial healthcare market is likely to contract and demand for Medicare/Medicaid will increase. Payers are looking at a very different post-COVID-19 world and the impact on drug prices, formulary coverage, generic use and plan coverage will present significant hurdles to drug manufacturers.

Pharma needs to plan for a new long-term reality. To explore current thinking we interviewed, in COVID-19 implications for pharma: US payer insights, experienced US payers to give you a clear perspective of the immediate actions being taken and the emerging issues and trends that will shape pharma/payer relations.

Payers explore key issues

  • What emergency measures are in place to ensure the health plans address customers’ medical needs and will these need to be reconsidered on an ongoing basis?
  • What precautions are currently being taken to negate the impact of costs directly related to COVID-19 such as screening, hospital admissions and long-term treatment of COVID-related health issues?
  • What impact could COVID-19 have on private healthcare plans and Medicare/Medicaid and their formulary coverage, market access to medicines and the role of telemedicine services in the future?
  • How might COVID-19 impact policy on co-payments, premiums and patient selection criteria for treatments in the future?
  • What impact could COVID-19 have on pricing and reimbursement of drugs and the role of value-based contracting?

Click here for more information about this report.

 

 

 

 

Optum says payers should keep a close eye on these 3 drugs. Here’s why

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/optum-says-payers-should-keep-a-close-eye-these-3-drugs-here-s-why?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTXpReVptRTBOemxoWW1OaCIsInQiOiJcL0FZVXVvVmhwQWpxdFBoV1VKRjhON29CaWhLY3g2bXFhT0doXC9tWVFpWTd0blh3TEY3MTN0M3lsZEs3K002d0hLS25BNld4dlk0b3NhWDBYaUhWYkNTUGc5SVRlRjBEMERoS01kWlZER1hVMmhFTkczdTAzMDhxWWpIaWxORk1mIn0%3D&mrkid=959610

The outside of Optum's headquarters

OptumRx researchers are highlighting three more drug products that payers should be keeping an eye on in 2020. 

Experts said in the pharmacy benefit manager’s second-quarter drug pipeline report echoed expectations from the first quarter that orphan drugs will be a major trend to watch as the year continues. Sumit Dutta, M.D., chief medical officer at OptumRx, wrote in the report these drugs will likely account for close to 40% of Food and Drug Administration approvals this year. 

Dutta said Optum is seeing more drug manufacturers jump into developing orphan drug products, which are generally considered less appealing as their market—and thus financial value—is more limited. 

“What is new is that we now are starting to see the development of orphan drugs become more competitive, increasing the potential for reduced costs and broader patient accessibility,” he wrote.

In 2018, the FDA approved more orphan drugs than non-orphan drugs for the first time. Optum’s first-quarter report also noted that these products are often pricey, as they target specific conditions. On average, orphan drugs cost $147,000 or more per year.

Of the three products highlighted in the second-quarter report, two are orphan drugs. Here’s more on what Optum’s analysts think payers need to know:

1. Risdiplam

If the FDA gives risdiplam a thumbs-up, it would become the first oral therapy for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a rare group of severe neuromuscular disorders. SMA is one of the most common genetic causes for infant mortality and affects about 1 in 11,000 babies.

There are only two treatments for SMA that are currently approved by the FDA, meaning there’s a significant unmet need for therapies, particularly oral medications, Optum said. The other treatments available are Spinraza, which requires repeated spinal injections, and gene therapy Zolgensma, the world’s most expensive drug.

Risdiplam would be administered orally once a day, which would likely draw significant interest from patients and their families, according to the report.

“Practically speaking, the competitive advantage for risdiplam will rest mainly in its oral route of administration, and perhaps, a lower cost,” according to the report. 

The analysts did caution that risdiplam is still in clinical trials and while results are promising, long-term outcomes associated with the drug are unclear. 

2. Viltolarsen

Viltolarsen is in development to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a rare genetic disease that impacts young boys. There is a large unmet need for drugs to treat DMD, Optum said in the report, as it’s linked with significant sickness and death.

About 6,000 people in the U.S. have this disease, according to the report.

Vitolarsen is an “exon-skipping” drug that “short circuits” the genetic mutations that cause DMD. If approved, it would be the third such drug for the disease, and the second targeting a specific mutation that affects about 8% of those with DMD.

The drug has only been tested in small sample sizes, and there are limited safety data available, according to the report. 

3. Trodelvy

Trodelvy, the brand name of an antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) therapy aimed at metastatic triple-negative breast cancer, was approved in April.  

Triple-negative breast cancers test negative for the three most common causes of cancer and are thus untreatable by many front-line therapies, though they are treatable by chemotherapy, according to the report. ADC products like Trodelvy combine genetically engineered antibodies and traditional chemotherapy drugs into one intravenous therapy.

Optum is highlighting Trodelvy as it expects ADC medications to be a trend to monitor in the near future, because they could be applied to conditions outside of oncology, according to the report.

“We can think of ADCs as a refinement or extension of precision medicine, which aims at maximizing therapeutic benefits while minimizing undesired side effects for an individual patient,” the researchers wrote. “As the field advances, we can look for new conjugate ‘payloads’ that will go far beyond hunting cancer cells.”

“Various manufacturers are exploring how to leverage the ADC approach to produce vaccines, radiological treatments, immunosuppressive, cardiovascular and more,” they wrote.

 

 

BIG PHARMA PREPARES TO PROFIT FROM THE CORONAVIRUS

https://theintercept.com/2020/03/13/big-pharma-drug-pricing-coronavirus-profits/?fbclid=IwAR3GaO3iDDuiIKbx2UUaYzU3_3fIfYlwvd6II3neLfK67IcmZpJ_acEv_2k

Image result for BIG PHARMA PREPARES TO PROFIT FROM THE CORONAVIRUS

AS THE NEW CORONAVIRUS spreads illness, death, and catastrophe around the world, virtually no economic sector has been spared from harm. Yet amid the mayhem from the global pandemic, one industry is not only surviving, it is profiting handsomely.

“Pharmaceutical companies view Covid-19 as a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity,” said Gerald Posner, author of “Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America.” The world needs pharmaceutical products, of course. For the new coronavirus outbreak, in particular, we need treatments and vaccines and, in the U.S., tests. Dozens of companies are now vying to make them.

“They’re all in that race,” said Posner, who described the potential payoffs for winning the race as huge. The global crisis “will potentially be a blockbuster for the industry in terms of sales and profits,” he said, adding that “the worse the pandemic gets, the higher their eventual profit.”

The ability to make money off of pharmaceuticals is already uniquely large in the U.S., which lacks the basic price controls other countries have, giving drug companies more freedom over setting prices for their products than anywhere else in the world. During the current crisis, pharmaceutical makers may have even more leeway than usual because of language industry lobbyists inserted into an $8.3 billion coronavirus spending package, passed last week, to maximize their profits from the pandemic.

Initially, some lawmakers had tried to ensure that the federal government would limit how much pharmaceutical companies could reap from vaccines and treatments for the new coronavirus that they developed with the use of public funding. In February, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and other House members wrote to Trump pleading that he “ensure that any vaccine or treatment developed with U.S. taxpayer dollars be accessible, available and affordable,” a goal they said couldn’t be met “if pharmaceutical corporations are given authority to set prices and determine distribution, putting profit-making interests ahead of health priorities.”

When the coronavirus funding was being negotiated, Schakowsky tried again, writing to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on March 2 that it would be “unacceptable if the rights to produce and market that vaccine were subsequently handed over to a pharmaceutical manufacturer through an exclusive license with no conditions on pricing or access, allowing the company to charge whatever it would like and essentially selling the vaccine back to the public who paid for its development.”

But many Republicans opposed adding language to the bill that would restrict the industry’s ability to profit, arguing that it would stifle research and innovation. And although Azar, who served as the top lobbyist and head of U.S. operations for the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly before joining the Trump administration, assured Schakowsky that he shared her concerns, the bill went on to enshrine drug companies’ ability to set potentially exorbitant prices for vaccines and drugs they develop with taxpayer dollars.

The final aid package not only omitted language that would have limited drug makers’ intellectual property rights, it specifically prohibited the federal government from taking any action if it has concerns that the treatments or vaccines developed with public funds are priced too high.

“Those lobbyists deserve a medal from their pharma clients because they killed that intellectual property provision,” said Posner, who added that the language prohibiting the government from responding to price gouging was even worse. “To allow them to have this power during a pandemic is outrageous.”

The truth is that profiting off public investment is also business as usual for the pharmaceutical industry. Since the 1930s, the National Institutes of Health has put some $900 billion into research that drug companies then used to patent brand-name medications, according to Posner’s calculations. Every single drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration between 2010 and 2016 involved science funded with tax dollars through the NIH, according to the advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs. Taxpayers spent more than $100 billion on that research.

Among the drugs that were developed with some public funding and went on to be huge earners for private companies are the HIV drug AZT and the cancer treatment Kymriah, which Novartis now sells for $475,000.

In his book “Pharma,” Posner points to another example of private companies making exorbitant profits from drugs produced with public funding. The antiviral drug sofosbuvir, which is used to treat hepatitis C, stemmed from key research funded by the National Institutes of Health. That drug is now owned by Gilead Sciences, which charges $1,000 per pill — more than many people with hepatitis C can afford; Gilead earned $44 billion from the drug during its first three years on the market.

“Wouldn’t it be great to have some of the profits from those drugs go back into public research at the NIH?” asked Posner.

Instead, the profits have funded huge bonuses for drug company executives and aggressive marketing of drugs to consumers. They have also been used to further boost the profitability of the pharmaceutical sector. According to calculations by Axios, drug companies make 63 percent of total health care profits in the U.S. That’s in part because of the success of their lobbying efforts. In 2019, the pharmaceutical industry spent $295 million on lobbying, far more than any other sector in the U.S. That’s almost twice as much as the next biggest spender — the electronics, manufacturing, and equipment sector — and well more than double what oil and gas companies spent on lobbying. The industry also spends lavishly on campaign contributions to both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Throughout the Democratic primary, Joe Biden has led the pack among recipients of contributions from the health care and pharmaceutical industries.

Big Pharma’s spending has positioned the industry well for the current pandemic. While stock markets have plummeted in reaction to the Trump administration’s bungling of the crisis, more than 20 companies working on a vaccine and other products related to the new SARS-CoV-2 virus have largely been spared. Stock prices for the biotech company Moderna, which began recruiting participants for a clinical trial of its new candidate for a coronavirus vaccine two weeks ago, have shot up during that time.

On Thursday, a day of general carnage in the stock markets, Eli Lilly’s stock also enjoyed a boost after the company announced that it, too, is joining the effort to come up with a therapy for the new coronavirus. And Gilead Sciences, which is at work on a potential treatment as well, is also thriving. Gilead’s stock price was already up since news that its antiviral drug remdesivir, which was created to treat Ebola, was being given to Covid-19 patients. Today, after Wall Street Journal reported that the drug had a positive effect on a small number of infected cruise ship passengers, the price went up further.

Several companies, including Johnson & Johnson, DiaSorin Molecular, and QIAGEN have made it clear that they are receiving funding from the Department of Health and Human Services for efforts related to the pandemic, but it is unclear whether Eli Lilly and Gilead Sciences are using government money for their work on the virus. To date, HHS has not issued a list of grant recipients. And according to Reuters, the Trump administration has told top health officials to treat their coronavirus discussions as classified and excluded staffers without security clearances from discussions about the virus.

Former top lobbyists of both Eli Lilly and Gilead now serve on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Azar served as director of U.S. operations for Eli Lilly and lobbied for the company, while Joe Grogan, now serving as director of the Domestic Policy Council, was the top lobbyist for Gilead Sciences.

 

 

 

Massive benefits consulting merger in the works

https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-vitals-f4216088-ea87-4fb4-ae0b-ab76f9368c8d.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

Image result for Massive benefits consulting merger in the works aon willis towers watson

Aon is proposing to buy Willis Towers Watson in an all-stock transaction that would combine the second- and third-largest insurance brokerages, Bob writes.

Why it matters: Employers hire Aon and Willis Towers Watson to help them choose health plans and pharmacy benefit managers for their workers, but the major consultants don’t always steer companies toward the best deals.

  • Combining into the largest consulting house on Earth will give Aon that much more power over employers.

What’s next: The two companies don’t expect to close the deal until the first half of 2021, indicating they know antitrust regulators will be closely scrutinizing this.

 

 

Senators demand Cigna, Optum turn over documents on insulin prices

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/senators-demand-cigna-optum-turn-over-documents-insulin-prices-deliver-subpoena-threat?utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal&mrkid=959610&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWm1Rd1kyVTNaVFl6WWpoayIsInQiOiJcL0ZDakZBUCtJWXhjNXBxUzVPRytqNUZBOU04ODlOU1I2ZFZyQ3ROcUo4eWoxckNMS2JsMVFBV1F6MEtHVkJZSVhZdWJQV2hoMVVTalwveTFnNUJYeFR6N3ZxaVZTUTNWVzI1UkMyQzh5MUxISUJaYm9KSEdYNlgyZVYyd0Q4Q0lvIn0%3D

Chuck Grassley

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are demanding Optum and Express Scripts turn over documents on how they determine insulin prices.

Leaders of the Senate Finance Committee demanded Cigna and Optum produce critical documents over the pricing of insulin, with a subpoena threat looming.

Cigna failed to produce any documents related to the committee’s request back in April 2019 and Optum didn’t produce essential documents, according to letters to both companies sent earlier this week by committee leaders. The documents would relate to the actions of pharmacy benefit managers such as Cigna’s Express Scripts on the rising costs of insulin.

“Cigna’s unwillingness to provide the documents we requested fits an industry-wide pattern of fighting efforts to shed light on PBMs’ practices,” the letter (PDF) to the insurer read.

Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the committee’s chairman and ranking member respectively, wrote that Cigna’s failure to comply has “reached an endpoint.” The insurer has until March 10 to provide more information or face a subpoena.

UnitedHealth Group’s Optum did produce thousands of pages for the committee, but a majority of them were irrelevant, already publicly available or duplicative.

“For example, Optum has produced more than 4,000 pages of publicly available formulary information guides and internal formulary drug lists that contain virtually no information related to the insulin therapeutic class,” the senators’ letter (PDF) to Optum said.

The original request for documentation had called for internal communications that would help the committee understand how Optum made decisions on “the out-of-pocket price patients pay for their insulin,” the letter said.

Grassley and Wyden launched the investigation last February into the price of insulin, which has increased up to 500%. The senators sent letters to leading insulin manufacturers Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi regarding the spike.

The senators also wanted to learn the process used for negotiations and agreements between PBMs and large plans on patient cost-sharing.

Cigna-Express Scripts said that it takes the committee’s inquiry “very seriously and have been engaged with them on this request. We are committed to being cooperative.”

Optum said that it share’s the committee’s concens regarding the high prices for insulin set by manufacturers.

“We have provided thousands of pages of documents in response to the committee’s request, and will continue to work with them on this important issue,” the company said.