Monday, September 26, 2016

The Solution to Every Healthcare Debate: Access vs. Cost

Two things you need to know about Suboxone (or buprenorphine) this morning highlight the essential elements of all past, present, and future healthcare debates.

First, the manufacturer is being sued by the Attorney General of Illinois (and 35 other AGs) for violation of antitrust statutes.  The states allege that Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals (now known as Indivior, because someone clearly new to marketing thought that would actually be easier to say) has effectively blocked generic competition for Suboxone by scheming to devise a new formulation (the film, an upgrade from the pill) in order to extend the patent protection of its franchise.  Believing, of course, that they are more sinned against than sinning, Indivior took to their web site to issue a statement that they will vigorously defend themselves against the charges.  I'm not sufficiently informed to weigh in on the merits of the suit.  I'll just point out that the company's actions are fairly typical of pharmaceutical companies and that were this a cholesterol medication instead of a potential addiction mitigation drug, I'm not sure we'd see this much attention paid to it by 36 state attorneys general.

Second, current physician capacity for treating opioid use disorder with Suboxone isn't being utilized.  A research letter published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that despite initial limits on the number of patients a certified physician may treat at any one time of 30 and subsequent limits (after 1 year of prescribing) of 100 patients, these doctors are treating numbers of patients far below those thresholds.  In the 7 states with the highest number of certified physicians, the monthly median patient census per doctor was found to me as follows:

  • California: 7
  • Florida: 11
  • Massachusetts: 22
  • Michigan: 7
  • New York: 11
  • Pennsylvania: 18
  • Texas: 10
Increasing the number of certified prescribers and the number of patients they may treat at any one time is a linchpin of the federal government's response to the prescription opioid epidemic.  So it's somewhat concerning that we're so focused on increasing capacity when we're clearly not even close to utilizing the capacity we have.  

Why is this?  Why the law suit?  Why the lack of utilization of existing capacity?  

Like every other debate in healthcare, when you peel back the onion far enough, you find two competing philosophical concepts that dictate nearly every public policy decision that confronts us: COST and ACCESS.  

The law suit is primarily about COST and secondarily about ACCESS (presumably, if a more affordable - read 'lower COST' - generic were to become available, more patients could potentially ACCESS therapy).  

The JAMA study is about ACCESS and it shows that despite our investment in capacity (which COSTS money), we're still not very good at ACCESS itself.  

Follow the money.  Follow the patients.  The solutions to all healthcare issues rest somewhere in the incentives, structure, and balance of the two.  

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Monday, September 19, 2016

Bad Pharma: This is What We're Up Against

We all know that lobbyists exist.  We all know the role they play in American politics, however frustrating that fact might be to us.  We all know that pharmaceutical companies have plenty of them and they appear to be pretty good at their jobs.

But thanks to some great work by the Associated Press, we now have a better sense for the magnitude of malfeasance that has occurred over the last 10 years in the halls of state capitol buildings, the US Congress, the White House, and our federal regulatory agencies.

The articles are here and here and I recommend reading both in full. For those crunched for time, some highlights I found particularly disturbing (in form of "what we've known" and "what's new"):

We've known for quite some time that there are a lot of dollars and a lot of brains devoted to maintaining the top line revenue of pharma companies operating in the pain space.  We now know:

  • They spent $880 million over a 10 year period from 2006-20015
  • This amount is 8 times the amount the gun lobby spent in the same period (read that again... just for emphasis)
  • $140 million of this went directly to political campaign contributions, $75 million of which went to candidates for federal office
  • Various advocacy groups employed an average of 1,350 lobbyists per year in state capitols across the country
We've known for a while that there were hidden forces behind the scenes attempting to squash public policy initiatives intended to stem the tide of prescription drug misuse and abuse.  We now know:
  • Back in 2012, when New Mexico came close to becoming the first state to limit initial opioid scripts to seven days, lobbyists got in the way.  "The lobbyists behind the scenes were killing it," said Bernadette Sanchez, a Democratic state senator who sponsored the measure.  We celebrate what New York and Massachusetts have done just this year, but forget that New Mexico tried it four years ago.  In the interim, we continued down the primrose path of opioid over-prescribing.  How many preventable deaths occurred between then and now? 
We've seen influence exercised among federal regulatory agencies, particularly at FDA. Former FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg consistently spoke about the need to balance access to pain medication for those in need with the public health crisis that is the prescription drug epidemic.  In so doing, she often referenced the 2014 NIH report that suggested 100 million Americans suffered from chronic pain.  We now know:
  • The Pain Care Forum (aka, the lobbying group backed by pharma) spent nearly $19 million on lobbying efforts that led to the legislation requiring the creation of this NIH report
  • Almost half of the report authors had served as leaders of groups affiliated with the Pain Care Forum - all of which were supported by pharma dollars.  
We all witnessed the controversy regarding the CDC guidelines earlier this year.  While the federal government's public health agency worked to develop guidelines for opioid prescribing among primary care physicians, other groups within the federal government were not only questioning the CDC's process and conclusions, but also going so far as to call the draft version of the guidelines "horrible" and "shocking."  Who were these critics?  We now know:
  • Dr. Richard Payne, who voiced concerned about conflicts of interest within the CDC advisory group, was himself paid over $16,000 by Purdue Pharma (makers of Oxycontin) for meals, travel, and speakers fees
  • Myra Christopher, another vocal critic of the CDC who openly stated that her NIH committee could not support the CDC guidelines, is a long time participant in the Pain Care Forum and holds a chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics - a chair endowed via a $1.5 million gift from Purdue Pharma.  
The most effective lobbying efforts come not as obvious broadsides with clear agendas and transparent motives.  Rather, the most effective efforts come with the trappings of genuine concern and the suits of science.  And that's what makes them scary.

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Monday, September 12, 2016

Market Failure and Medications: The Consequences of Healthcare Economics

I have a friend who happens to be an economist.  He's a really (really) smart guy and I value his views on everything from parenting to high finance.  So when he struck up a conversation about a recent blog post of mine that covered the intersection of drug prices and basic economic principles, I was all ears.  

"You haven't identified the market failure," he said.  

I was caught a little off guard.  I needed a moment to recall the specific definition of "market failure." It's not what most people think.  If the average person hears the term "market failure," they're likely to believe the S&P 500 dropped precipitously that day.  But when an economist uses the term, he means that the supply and demand dynamics of any given market have failed to reach a market clearing price.  The market could be for guns, butter, iPhones, or medications.  Doesn't matter. Buyers are unwilling to buy, sellers are unwilling to sell.  The market isn't working.  It has failed to produce transactions of any kind.     

My friend's point was that the market for naloxone was still functioning.  Buyers were complaining vociferously (in the press, to Congress, to manufacturers, etc.) but naloxone was still being bought and sold.  Howls of protest are one thing, he was saying, but the market still looks like it's working - albeit at a significantly higher market clearing price than a few years ago.  

From a purely economic perspective, he's exactly right.  But this isn't "pure" economics.  This is healthcare economics.  And the difference isn't that we in healthcare don't get it, it's that we have to get it sooner... because the stakes are much higher.  

In my original blog post, I told the story of my son Will and his experience with the supply and demand of chocolate.  I pointed out some of the differences between his experience selling Hershey bars to 1st graders and the pharmaceutical companies raising prices of medications like naloxone.  But there's one difference I did not identify in that original post and it's critical to understanding the current public discourse around naloxone and EpiPens and other medications whose price has risen substantially as of late.  

If Will's market for chocolate fails, then kids neither buy nor sell chocolate.
If the market for EpiPens fails, a kid dies.  

Overly dramatic?  Not in the least.  If access to potentially live saving medications is inhibited by market failure, then preventable death is not only a possible consequence, it's a probable one.  Those of us who work in this space have to anticipate market failures and prevent them from happening. We cannot sit back and wait for the market to fail and then act to correct it.    

Economics is different in healthcare for lots of reasons (government participation in price setting, employer-based health coverage, third party payers, just to name a few), but ultimately, what makes the domain of healthcare economics so unique is that it carries life and death consequences at every turn.  What's past is prologue... and we have to get it right.    

On Twitter @PRIUM1

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

FDA and Off-Label Drug Use: Danger Ahead

The FDA has scheduled hearings for November (and a public comment period that will extend to January) regarding the agency's current approach to the marketing of off-label uses of FDA-approved medications.  Drug and device manufacturers have been waiting years for this opportunity to change the agency's stance on off-label marketing.  

This is not good news.    

First, a definition: Drugs approved by the FDA are approved only for the specific conditions for which they were tested in clinical trials conducted by the manufacturer.  These approved medications have an FDA "label" which stipulates those conditions for which the drug has been approved.  FDA approval, however, does not govern the practice of medicine.  Doctors are free to prescribe FDA approved drugs for conditions not included on the "label" (thus, off-label use of FDA approved drugs).  While the practice is common among doctors, pharmaceutical and medical device companies are restricted from "marketing" off-label uses of drugs.    The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gave the FDA the power to regulate promotional materials on medications and to this day, they do. Very closely.  

Second, some basic statistics:
  • 1 in 5 medications prescribed today is for off-label use. (Example relevant to you: tricyclic antidepressants do not have FDA approval as a treatment for neuropathic pain, yet this class of drugs is considered by many physicians to be a first-line treatment option.) 
  • In recent years, antipsychotic drug use for unapproved FDA indications has increased. One study estimated that the cost of off-label antipsychotic drug use in 2008 was $6.0 billion.
  • The fines connected to illegal off-label marketing by pharmaceutical companies appear material (though this is debatable in light of the annual sales of some of these drugs): 
    • 2009: Eli Lilly paid $1.4 billion off-label marketing of olanzapine for dementia
    • 2009: Pfizer paid $2.3 billion for alleged off-label marketing of 4 of its medications
    • 2012: GSK paid $1.3 billion for off label marketing of paroxetine
    • 2012: Abbott paid $1.6 billion for off label marketing of valproic acid 

So here's the core question: Should the FDA allow pharmaceutical and medical device companies to market to doctors off-label uses of medications?

In a word, no.  But let's dig a little deeper into the argument the pharma companies are making.

Their position is summed up best by the quote in the Bloomberg article (linked above) from Deborah M. Shelton, deputy general counsel for healthcare at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO):  “Removing current regulatory barriers, and clarifying the ability of companies to share truthful and non-misleading information [emphasis added] about medicines, is essential to our collective ability to realize the full potential of 21st century medicines and helping to ensure that patients are able to get the right medicines at the right time for them,” 

Two key words here: truthful and non-misleading.  Leaving aside that the use of both terms appears redundant, we're still left the the fundamental question of who decides what is truthful and non-misleading.  

We have three choices available to answer that question: the FDA, the drug companies, and broad clinical experience.  

The FDA seems like the most logical answer.  They approved the drug in the first place, why can't they be responsible for approving additional indications (or uses) of that same medication?  The reply from the drug companies to this idea is understandable: it's really expensive.  The FDA requires a similar level of data and similar level of rigor from clinical trials to approve an additional indication as they do to approve the initial indication.  In many cases (though not all), the costs are clearly prohibitive.  

The drug companies cannot be trusted to decide what's truthful.  If you can't see the obvious conflicts of interest here, then you should stop reading.  You're not worth another word.    

Broad clinical experience, or the general body of knowledge developed as a result of actually practicing medicine, is a valuable source of information and the means by which some portion of off-label prescribing comes to occur in the first place.  When such knowledge is documented in well-respected, peer reviewed journals, the medical community gains a trusted and codified source that might prove valuable to other clinicians.  But how to get that information disseminated?  Could the pharma companies do that?  Isn't that what they're asking for here?  To relay "truthful and non-misleading information" to doctors about off-label uses of medications?  

Here's the thing: they can already do that.  From the Mayo Clinic's article by Chistopher Wittich, et al [emphasis added]: "The 1997 FDA Modernization Act allowed manufacturers to distribute to health care providers peer-reviewed journal articles about unapproved uses of medications.  If a given drug company chose to engage in distribution of this type of information, it was required to submit an application for approval of that indication within a rigid and pre-specified period. These requirements were subsequently revised in 2009 with the approval of new FDA guidelines. The new guidelines clarified existing rules and allowed distribution of information on off-label uses by pharmaceutical manufactures if specific regulations were followed.  After 2009, pharmaceutical manufacturers could distribute information, including journal articles and textbook chapters, describing unapproved uses for their medications. The FDA demanded that the information in these... publications be accurate, the relationship between the distribution of information and the sponsoring drug manufacturer be disclosed, and the published material not be edited or presented in an abridged form. In addition, the manufacturer is no longer required to submit an application for approval for that indication."

Sounds reasonable to me.  What do the drug companies want to be able to do beyond this?  Makes me very, very nervous.  

On Twitter @PRIUM1