Health Care Is on Agenda for New Congress

https://www.scripps.org/blogs/front-line-leader/posts/6546-ceo-blog-health-care-is-on-agenda-for-new-congress

After months of polls, mailbox fliers, debates and seemingly endless commercials, the mid-term elections are over and the results are in. As predicted by many, the Democrats have won back the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, while the Republicans have expanded their majority in the Senate.

This means that for the first time since 2015 we have a divided Congress, which leaves me pondering the possible consequences for Scripps Health and the broader health care sector.

Without a doubt, health care will be on the agenda for both parties over the coming months. That became apparent during pre-election campaigning as voters on both sides of the political spectrum voiced concerns about a wide range of health care-related issues.

Exit polls found that about 41 percent of voters listed health care as the top issue facing the country, easily outpacing other issues such as immigration and the economy.

That’s really no surprise. Health care affects all of us, whether we’re young or old, poor or well off, or identify as more conservative or more liberal. And despite all of the division around the country, most Americans seem to agree on at least a few things – health care costs too much, more needs to be done to rein in those costs, everyone should have access to health insurance, and pre-existing condition shouldn’t be a disqualifier for getting coverage.

When the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3, a wide range of health care issues will be on the agenda.

Here are a few of the issues that I’ll be watching as our lawmakers adjust to the reshuffled political dynamics in Washington.

  • Repealing elements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is likely off the table now that Democrats control the House. Previously, House Republicans had voted to change a number of ACA provisions that required health insurance policies to cover prescription drugs, mental health care and other “essential” health benefits. But even before the election, Republicans had reassessed making changes to measures that protect people with pre-existing conditions as that issue gained traction with voters.
  • Efforts to expand insurance coverage and achieve universal health care will likely increase. A number of newly elected Democrats vowed to push for a vote on the single-payer option, but other less politically polarizing options such as lowering the eligibility age for Medicare and expanding Medicaid likely will draw more support.
  • While Republicans used their majority in the House to reduce the burden of government regulations in health care and other industries, Democrats might use their new-found power to initiate investigations on a wide range of matters such as prescription drug costs.

We could see some significant changes take place at a more local level as well. On Tuesday, voters in three states approved the expansion of Medicaid, the government program that provides health care coverage for the poor.

And here in California, we will be watching newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom to see what plans he will put forward for expanding health care coverage in this state.

At Scripps, we believe everyone should have access to the health care services that they need, and we have worked hard in recent years to do all that we can to bring down the costs of delivering that care to our patients.

In this new world of divided government, gridlock likely will prevail and President Trump’s initiatives will struggle in the Democrat-controlled House. Everyone will be focused on positioning themselves and their party for the next presidential and congressional elections in two years.

Compromise and bipartisanship are clearly the best options for addressing the health care challenges we now face in ways that have the best chance to win wide public support.

If Democrats in the House fail to reach across the aisle to Republicans or try to make too many changes too quickly, they surely will face many of the same pitfalls that confronted Republicans over the last two years.

 

 

Public blames everyone for high health costs

https://www.kff.org/health-reform/poll-finding/kaiser-health-tracking-poll-late-summer-2018-the-election-pre-existing-conditions-and-surprises-on-medical-bills/

Health care costs remain a leading issue ahead of this year’s midterms, and voters have plenty of blame to go around, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest tracking poll.

  • Kaiser asked its respondents whether certain factors are a “major reason” health care costs are rising. (There could be multiple “major reasons.”)
  • Blame for the potential political culprits — the ACA and the Trump administration — was split about evenly.
  • But there’s a broader bipartisan agreement that industry is to blame: At least 70% faulted drug companies, hospitals and insurers. Doctors caught a break, at 49%.

Partisanship reigns, though, on the question of whether President Trump will help.

  • A mere 13% of Democrats are at least somewhat confident that Americans will pay less for prescription drugs under the Trump administration, compared with a whopping 83% of Republicans. Independents generally share Democrats’ skepticism.
  • Roughly a quarter of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans, think Trump’s public criticism of drug companies will help bring down prices.

Surprise hospital bills haven’t attracted the same political uproar as prescription drug costs, but the Kaiser poll provides more reason to believe they could be the next big controversy.

  • 67% said they’re “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about being unable to pay a surprise medical bill, while 53% fear they won’t be able to pay their deductible and 45% are afraid of the tab for their prescription drugs.
  • 39% experienced a surprise bill in the past year.

 

 

 

U.S. Prescription Drug Costs Are a Crime

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-02-27/prescription-drug-costs-in-the-u-s-are-a-crime

 

And just tweaking the system won’t solve the problem.

President Donald Trump has complained that U.S. drug companies are “getting away with murder.” For once the hyperbole is forgivable: It suggests he takes the problem of drug costs seriously and might be willing to do something about it. Unfortunately, his administration’s efforts up to now suggest the opposite.

The White House has proposed tweaks to government health-care programs. Some of these measures are worth trying — they could help at the margin — but tweaks aren’t enough. The underlying problem is drug prices that are indeed murderous: Americans and their insurers often pay many times what people in other developed countries pay for the same medicines. That’s what policy needs to confront.

The administration wants insurers participating in Medicare’s prescription-drug program, for instance, to share more directly with beneficiaries the discounts they arrange with drug companies. Out-of-pocket drug costs for some people on Medicare would be capped, and reimbursement for medicines administered by doctors would be trimmed. In Medicaid, a handful of states would be allowed to decline coverage for certain drugs, increasing their leverage in negotiating discounts.

Such changes could lower drug spending for some Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. But they miss the main point by shifting costs within the health-care system rather pressing down on the costs themselves. Unless this changes, the U.S. will continue to be overcharged for its drugs.

The companies often say that high U.S. prices pay for research into new lifesaving products. Leaving aside why U.S. patients should be asked to shoulder that burden for the entire world, the evidence shows that the argument is false: The premium companies collect in the U.S. market is substantially greater than the amount they spend on research and development.

State legislatures have aimed closer to the mark with efforts to expose the math behind price increases. Vermont, Nevada and California have new lawsrequiring that drug companies provide cost breakdowns to justify big price hikes on popular drugs (including, in Nevada’s case, drugs for diabetes). Several other states are considering doing the same.

Even if these laws stand — they’re being challenged in court — transparency gets you only so far. Pushing prices down will take stronger efforts from the federal government to increase competition.

One good way to do that is to speed the uptake of generics. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, has been pressuring drug makers to stop trying to extend the monopolies they’ve been granted (via FDA approval and patents) for brand-name drugs. But only Congress can forbid those practices, and it has yet to act on bipartisan legislation that would do the job. Trump could show he’s serious about lowering drug prices by urging Congress to pass the law.

Another way to boost competition would be to let people and pharmacies import some drugs from other countries with sound pharmaceutical regulation, such as Canada. Almost one in 10 Americans say they already do, despite the official prohibition.

The U.S. should also do what so many other countries do: negotiate. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ought to use its enormous purchasing power on behalf of the 42 million Americans in the Medicare drug-benefit program, ensuring that prices better reflect the drugs’ actual medical value. Again, for this to happen, Congress would need to change the law. Incredible as this will seem elsewhere in the world, the U.S. government has denied itself permission to apply pharmaceutical cost-benefit analysis and negotiate prices.

Trump is right to deplore the cost of drugs in the U.S. There’s no great mystery about the causes — and no doubt that much bolder measures than the administration has in mind will be needed to bring prices down.

Why Your Pharmacist Can’t Tell You That $20 Prescription Could Cost Only $8

As consumers face rapidly rising drug costs, states across the country are moving to block “gag clauses” that prohibit pharmacists from telling customers that they could save money by paying cash for prescription drugs rather than using their health insurance.

Many pharmacists have expressed frustration about such provisions in their contracts with the powerful companies that manage drug benefits for insurers and employers. The clauses force the pharmacists to remain silent as, for example, a consumer pays $125 under her insurance plan for an influenza drug that would have cost $100 if purchased with cash.

Much of the difference often goes to the drug benefit managers.

Federal and state officials say they share the pharmacists’ concerns, and they have started taking action. At least five states have adopted laws to make sure pharmacists can inform patients about less costly ways to obtain their medicines, and at least a dozen others are considering legislation to prohibit gag clauses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said that after meeting recently with a group of pharmacists in her state, she was “outraged” to learn about the gag orders.

“I can’t tell you how frustrated these pharmacists were that they were unable to give that information to their customers, who they knew were struggling to pay a high co-pay,” Ms. Collins said.

Alex M. Azar II, the new secretary of health and human services, who was a top executive at the drugmaker Eli Lilly for nearly 10 years, echoed that concern. “That shouldn’t be happening,” he said.

Pharmacy benefit managers say they hold down costs for consumers by negotiating prices with drug manufacturers and retail drugstores, but their practices have come under intense scrutiny.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers said in a report this month that large pharmacy benefit managers “exercise undue market power” and generate “outsized profits for themselves.”

Steven F. Moore, whose family owns Condo Pharmacy in Plattsburgh, N.Y., said the restrictions on pharmacists’ ability to discuss prices with patients were “incredibly frustrating.”

Mr. Moore offered this example of how the pricing works: A consumer filling a prescription for a drug to treat diabetes or high blood pressure may owe $20 if he uses insurance coverage. By contrast, a consumer paying cash might have to pay $8 to $15.

Mark Merritt, the president and chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, which represents benefit managers, said he agreed that consumers should pay the lower amount.

As for the use of gag clauses, he said: “It’s not condoned by the industry. We don’t defend it. It has occurred on rare occasions, but it’s an outlier practice that we oppose.”

However, Thomas E. Menighan, the chief executive of the American Pharmacists Association, said that such clauses were “not an outlier,” but instead a relatively common practice. Under many contracts, he said, “the pharmacist cannot volunteer the fact that a medicine is less expensive if you pay the cash price and we don’t run it through your health plan.”

A bipartisan measure that took effect in Connecticut this year prohibits the gag clauses. It was introduced by the top Democrat in the Connecticut Senate, Martin M. Looney, and the top Republican, Len Fasano.

“This is information that consumers should have,” Mr. Looney said in an interview, “but that they were denied under the somewhat arbitrary and capricious contracts that pharmacists were required to abide by.”

Mr. Fasano said that consumers were sometimes paying three or four times as much when they used their insurance as they would have paid without it. “That’s price gouging,” he said in an interview.

The legislation, Mr. Fasano said, encountered “a lot of resistance” from large pharmacy benefit managers and some insurance companies.

In North Carolina, a new law says that pharmacists “shall have the right” to provide insured customers with information about their insurance co-payments and less costly alternatives.

A new Georgia law says that a pharmacist may not be penalized for disclosing such information to a customer. Maine has adopted a similar law.

In North Dakota, a new law explicitly bans gag orders. It says that a pharmacy or pharmacist may provide information that “may include the cost and clinical efficacy of a more affordable alternative drug if one is available.”

The North Dakota law also says that a pharmacy benefit manager or insurer may not charge a co-payment that exceeds the actual cost of a medication.

The lobby for drug benefit companies, the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, has filed suit in federal court to block the North Dakota law, saying it imposes “onerous new restrictions on pharmacy benefit managers.”

Specifically, it says, the North Dakota law could require the disclosure of “proprietary trade secrets,” including information about how drug prices are set. “P.B.M.–pharmacy contracts typically preclude a pharmacy from disclosing to the patient the amount of a reimbursement,” the lawsuit says.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, said this past week that he would call a special session of the State Legislature to authorize the regulation of pharmacy benefit managers by the state’s Insurance Department.

He said he feared that some independent pharmacists receiving “inadequate reimbursement” from the benefit managers might go out of business, reducing patients’ access to care, especially in rural areas.