Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Price vs Patient Access: Specialty’s Unsettling Conundrum

Publicly traded health care companies have been on a tear recently compared with traditional indexes, such as the S&P 500. Innovative sectors, such as specialty pharmacy and biotechnology, once again have many viewing health care as a growth story. While these sectors are not new, the combination of improved science, more consumers accessing the health care system, and encouraging signs of an accommodative FDA have many on Wall Street optimistic about the future of health care. 

Despite these encouraging signs, however, a threat is emerging. The accelerating trend of rising specialty medication costs is not only causing justifiable concern, but is also deepening the philosophical divide between the essential stakeholders, such as health care providers and payers, who play vital roles in ensuring appropriate patient care. While many are wondering whether higher
Courtesy of Avalere Health
pricing is a sustainable and justifiable trade-off if patient outcomes are improved, I believe that a major point is being ignored: without cooperation between the system’s essential stakeholders, our health care system’s potential will never be fully realized. While costs should be scrutinized, they should not be the sole factor in determining a patient’s access to therapy. This article will describe emerging viewpoints of key stakeholders to illustrate how specialty is segmented by price and offer insight into how this can be changed to help ensure a better scenario for all involved. 

According to Express Scripts, Inc (ESI), the country’s largest pharmacy benefit manager, “US spending on specialty prescription drugs—those used to treat chronic, complex diseases, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis—is projected to increase 67% by the end of 2015.”  While there are many reasons why this is occurring, manufacturers have no doubt shifted their focus when it comes to drug development. 

In a general sense, pharma has transitioned from creating “me-too treatments” and drugs that improved patient conditions to the point where they became more manageable to creating high-value transformative medications that are just shy of being called curative. Some manufacturers believe that their products should be priced at a premium to reflect their innovation and that a patient pool exists that is willing to pay top dollar for the best the market has to offer. While an argument can be made justifying premium pricing, pharma’s stance has created another marketplace response that may be squeezing patient access to medications even tighter. 

Last year marked a significant change for the payer community. Payers, whose primary mission is to ensure lower drug costs for the system, felt that pharma was moving in an uncomfortable direction and resorted to aggressive cost containment protocols to regain price control. There were instances when payers like ESI voiced displeasure at products they believed were overpriced without being justified by peer-reviewed, evidence-based data. It seemed as though the payer community abruptly began to shift the system from one that was product-focused to one that is data-driven and values newly manufactured drugs based on clinical distinction and economic factors. 

After halting coverage for many active ingredients found in ointments, creams, and powders used by compounding pharmacies due to cost concerns, ESI escalated its policy of forcing the lowering of product costs by negotiating a market-moving deal with AbbVie for its newly approved hepatitis C virus (HCV) treatment. 

Months after spearheading a national coalition to force Gilead’s high-priced HCV treatment Sovaldi out of the market, ESI announced it had negotiated a better price for competitor AbbVie’s Viekira Pak. Additionally, ESI announced that they would no longer cover Gilead’s HCV treatment. It didn’t matter that Viekira Pak’s original price was only slightly lower than Sovaldi’s; what mattered was that AbbVie significantly lowered Viekira Pak’s price in order to be included in the formulary. 

Many were left wondering if this would prompt other payers to respond in a similar fashion and seek to achieve better patient outcomes via a pricing war. Surprisingly, the answer to date is no. Both CVS Caremark and Anthem decided to include Gilead’s Harvoni (Sovaldi’s more widely prescribed successor) on their formularies as a way to combat HCV, while Prime Therapeutics decided it could save its beneficiaries’ money by including both Gilead and AbbVie’s HCV treatments on its formulary. 

After taking all of this into account, it seems as though payers have been putting too much of their resources toward cost containment without a balanced approach to achieving better patient care. However, the fault doesn’t lie entirely with the payers. In order to achieve the ultimate goal of patient access, it must be understood that neither pharma nor the payer community has fully realized the resources that the specialty provider community has to offer. I’ll illustrate the potential benefits of a comprehensive approach that is dedicated to preserving patient access: 

See more at www.pharmacytimes.com.

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