What are the implications of the upward spiral occurring in the specialty drug cost trend?

By Clive Riddle, May 1, 2015 

What are the implications of the upward spiral occurring in the specialty drug cost trend?" That was the question asked of experts in the current issue in MCOL’s ThoughtLeaders. A running theme in their responses was that this will further drive the value-based payment movement. Our ThoughtLeader Dr.  Peter Kongstvedt also takes us a “wonk on the wild side: predicting policy implications including more legislation. 

Here’s some excerpts from their responses in ThoughtLeaders: 

Vicky Parikh,  MD, MPH, (Executive Director, Reliance Health and Executive Director, Mid-Atlantic Medical Research Centers) frames the discussion, and points to further cost-sharing as the consequence – “Specialty drugs can cost more than $600 per treatment, $4,000 or more a month and can reach expenditures up to $100,000 a year. By 2020 the overall spending for specialty drugs could potentially reach $400 billion, or 9.1% of national health spending. In 2009, .12 cents out of every dollar spent went to specialty drugs. Now, that amount has risen to .32 cents out of every dollar. But what does the increase of prices for specialty drugs have to do with anything, when most individuals have a health plan that pay for medical expenditures? Employer based health plans could cause employees to see a change of benefits, increasing deductibles and overall shifting of the more expensive bills being passed towards the employee. 

Jeremy Nobel,  MD, MPH, (Northeast Business Group on Health,  Executive Director, NEBGH's Solutions & Innovations Center and Faculty, Center for Primary Care, Harvard Medical School)  sees the trend hastening value-based purchasing – “The upward spiral on Specialty Pharma costs will likely accelerate the pace at which patient-centered care will reshape the healthcare marketplace from ‘volume-based’ to ‘value-based.’ Facilitated by highly personalized care coordination, back-stopped by advanced analytics, and rewarded with a host of outcomes-based payment mechanisms, providers and systems that can adjust to that ‘new normal’ will become dominant players. From a purchaser perspective, the traditional focus on reducing costs of "components of care" and managing unit price through volume discounts for everything from drugs to hospital days, to office visits and diagnostic tests, needs to move rapidly and comprehensively towards a focus on ‘total cost of care’ with a payment model that rewards cost reduction as long as quality benchmarks are maintained. And with the inevitable market entry of new medications like the PCSK9 class of drugs targeting extremely common conditions like hypercholesterolemia, the current Rx cost/value management mechanisms for Specialty Pharma will ‘fall short’ quickly.”  

Cyndy Natyer, President, and Founder/CEO of Center of Health Engagement) also looks to value – “My goal is to shift the conversation to what is the value of the drug, and if it can prevent high cost conditions from becoming higher costs, then a higher priced drug may well be worth the negotiated spend…On the other hand, some of the drugs in the specialty arena are going thru yearly increases of thousands of dollars without new technology or formulations. In this case, the price escalation without better outcomes must be considered when negotiating the price of the drugs. We are even seeing many-hundred-percent increases in some common drugs, not specialty, for common chronic illnesses, again with little or no attribution to new technology in the drugs. In each case, I'd like to think that we will not simply deny a drug to a patient because of the cost, and that we would not waste valuable time demanding that folks fail on the drugs we know will not suit them because they are cheaper.” 

Constance A. Wilkinson (Member of the Firm, Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.) and Alan J. Arville (Member of the Firm, Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.) also go down the value-based path – “Manufacturers (and payors) will continue to pursue a value-based purchasing strategy, such as an outcomes-based approach, to support the value proposition of the drug. Such arrangements build in financial incentives or penalties for manufacturers that are contingent upon negotiated performance standards (typically based on quality or health outcomes). There are particular challenges in implementing this approach for federal health care program beneficiaries due to the potential implications to manufacturer drug price reporting under those programs, and the attendant financial consequences.” 

Peter R. Kongstvedt, MD, FACP (Principal, P.R. Kongstvedt Company, LLC) sees policy implications - “The two most significant long-term implications of rising specialty pharmacy drug costs are to create the pressure for another round of "health reform" and on international trade policy. These are obvious choices, I know, but let's look closer and take a wonk on the wild side ("...and the wonks go doo, da-doo, da-doo, da-doo doodoo, doo, da-doo, da-doo, da-doo doodoo..." *). [* Apologies to the late and sorely missed Lou Reed.] 

Peter explains that “there are really two broad types of specialty pharmacy though: manufactured drugs that are one or perhaps two molecules, regardless of how they are manufactured or delivered; and compounding pharmacy drugs. Compounding accounts for a surprising amount of the specialty pharmacy cost increase, but because it uses drugs manufactured by others, it can be managed with through tough negotiations, the use of a single compounding pharmacy, strict adherence to medical guidelines, preauthorization, a closed formulary, and benefits design. That leaves us with the manufactured molecules that have the long term implications.”

Peter sees the trend accelerating cost-sharing, which in turn will accelerate legislative reform of cost-sharing, and even pricing. “We will bypass all but one of the short term implications related to the existing approaches to managing costs such as preauthorization, drug utilization review, step therapy, formulary control and the like, as well as the counter-measures used by the manufacturers. But one of the most common approaches is increased cost-sharing, and that's the one that could get us to another round of health reform. Increased cost-sharing for specialty pharmacy is not quite the same as upping the PCP office visit copay by $10. It now often includes separate deductibles and coinsurance being applied only to specialty pharmacy coverage, which for a lot of people is both good news and bad news. The good news is that cost-sharing goes away when they hit their annual out-of-pocket maximum, which may occur in the second month of coverage; the bad news is they are slowly going bankrupt because most people don't have $6,600.00 (2015 single) / $13,200.00 (2015 Family) of spare cash every year in their savings or under the couch cushions. This brings us to Health Reform II: The Next Act…..Multiple states are now considering "cap the copay" bills that would require state licensed insurers and HMOs to markedly limit cost-sharing; for example, one Oregon bill under consideration would cap cost-sharing at $100 per month.

Peter warns that “’Cap the copay’ and similar laws are like mowing the lawn to get rid of dandelions - it only appears to solve a problem that is actually growing. Specialty pharmacy costs, and really all healthcare costs related to pricing, in reality grow faster when richer coverage is required. Eventually those very real and ever-rising costs will force us as a society to once again grapple with national health policy about how we finance health care goods and services. Payers were first in the reform barrel. Pricing is likely to be next, though it may be confined to one sector, and specialty pharmacy or drug manufacturers overall seems to have raised its collective hand to be called on next.


Does Patient Satisfaction Matter? 

By Kim Bellard, April 24, 2015 

In a provocative article for The Atlantic, Alexandra Robbins posits that we may have a "problem with satisfied patients."  Ah, only in health care...

Ms. Robbins fears that hospitals may be focusing too much on making patients happier, rather than on making them well.  She cites how hospitals are rushing to provide "extra amenities such as valet parking, live music, custom-order room-service meals, and flat-screen televisions," which may help patients have a better experience but which mean resources not going directly to patient care.

She may have a point.

Ms. Robbins' analysis found that hospitals that do poorly on three or more categories of patient outcome measures actually score above average on patient satisfaction.  In her words: "Many hospitals seem to be highly focused on pixie-dusted sleight of hand because they believe they can trick patients into thinking they got better care."


Ms. Robbins cited a 
2012 study by Fenton, et. alia, that further quantified the patient satisfaction "problem."   According to their research, patients with the highest satisfaction also have higher odds of inpatient admissions, greater prescription drug expenditures, higher overall expenditures, and higher mortality.

Patient satisfaction is clearly in vogue, as evidenced by
CMS unveiling its star ratings on Hospital Compare last week, based on HCAHPS results, and by Medicare's increased focus on value-based payments.  The 2015 HIMSS Leadership Survey found that 87% of respondents listed patient satisfaction as their organization's top priority, higher than even sustaining financial viability (85%).

AHA's official response to the CMS ratings was cautionary: "There's a risk to oversimplifying the complexity of quality care or misinterpreting what is important to a particular patient, especially since patients seek care for many different reasons."

OK, fair what does AHA propose instead?

Another study on patient satisfaction,
by Vanguard Communications, looked at patient reviews of physicians, and also found some unexpected results: "Ironically, the analysis indicates that generally as a doctor’s level of education and training increases, patient satisfaction actually decreases."

I didn't see that one coming.

Vanguard believes that the ratings reflect more about customer service than clinical quality.  Ron Harmon King, Vanguard's CEO, says:  "Does that mean more highly trained specialists deliver poorer customer service? We can’t say with any certainty, although we found a correlation."

The Physicians Foundation 2014 survey found that 42% of respondents did, indeed, list a customer-service related reason for why they were satisfied with their family physician, way ahead of actual treatment related reasons (26%).  

Ms. Robbins is thus not alone in being skeptical about patient satisfaction scores.  She backed up her skepticism with a quote from nurse Amy Bozeman: "The patient is NOT always right. They just don’t have the knowledge and training."  

I hate to break it to either of them, but even with all our health care professionals' knowledge and training, our health system's record on quality is 
pretty dismal.

Look, patient satisfaction is not a perfect measure, nor should it ever be the only measure used, but it has to be an important measure.  I can see patients being initially swayed by amenities or even simple courtesy, neither of which have typically been in abundance in our health system.  But we can't afford to forgo the burgeoning effort to focus on improving patient satisfaction.  At some point we have to trust that patients will see through smiles and nicer waiting rooms, and judge quality based on whether they are actually getting better.

And, in fact,
research from Johns Hopkins suggests that patients may not fall for "pixie dusted sleight-of-hand" tricks after all.  The study concluded that:

"Patients responded positively to pleasing surroundings and comfort, but were able to discriminate their experiences with the hospital environment from those with physicians and nurses...Hospital administrators should not use outdated facilities as an excuse for suboptimal provider satisfaction scores."   

As Abraham Lincoln famously said: "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time."

This post is an abridged version of the posting in Kim Bellard’s blogsite. Click here to read the full posting


Vormetric Report: 48% of Healthcare organizations Had Data Breach or Failed Compliance Audit in Past Year

By Clive Riddle, April 16, 2015

Given the Anthem health plan hack in February, and other healthcare organizations that have fallen victim to breaches as of late, surveys offering threat assessments are certainly of interest. Vormetric just released the twenty-page 2015 Vormetric Insider Threat Report, which includes healthcare industry specific data.

How does Vormetric define Insider Threats? "Insider threats are caused by a wide range of offenders who either maliciously or accidentally do things that put an organization and its data at risk. The insider threat landscape is becoming more difficult to deal with as the range of miscreants moves beyond employees and privileged IT staff. It now includes outsiders who have stolen valid user credentials; business partners, suppliers, and contractors with inappropriate access rights; and third-party service providers with excessive admin privileges. Unless properly controlled, all of these groups have the opportunity to reach inside corporate networks and steal unprotected data."

Vormetric's 2015 Insider Threat Report was conducted online by Harris Poll during fall 2014, with 818 global respondents who work full-time as an IT professional with major influence in decision making for their company’s IT. In the U.S., 408 ITDMs were surveyed among companies with at least $200 million in revenue with 102 from the health care industries, 102 from financial industries, 102 from retail industries and 102 from other industries.

Vormetric reminds us that hacker attraction to healthcare is fueled by black market “healthcare records selling for tens to hundreds of dollars, while U.S. credit card records sell for 50 cents or less.” Alan Kessler, Vormetric tells us "healthcare data has become one of the most desirable commodities for sale on black market sites, yet U.S. healthcare organizations are failing to secure that data. An overreliance on compliance requirements and a cursory nod to data protection point to systemic failures that are putting patient data at risk. What's needed is for healthcare organization to realize that compliance is not enough, and to implement the controls and policies required to put the security of their data first."

Among healthcare organization respondents to their survey, 48% encountered a data breach or failed a compliance audit in the last year. 26% of healthcare respondents reported that their organization had previously experienced a data breach. 54% reported compliance requirements as the top reason for protecting sensitive data, and 68% rated compliance as very or extremely effective at stopping insider threats and data breaches.

63 percent of healthcare IT decision makers report that their organizations are planning to increase spending to offset data threats, which was the highest of any segment or region measured in the report.

When asked about the most important reasons for securing sensitive data, the top three responses from the healthcare sector were compliance (55%), implementing best practices (44%) and reputational protection (41%). In comparison to other business sectors the compliance response was 5 percentage points above other industry averages.


Provider Networks Referral Leakage

By Claire Thayer, April 16, 2015

Containing patient referrals within a provider network is easier said than done, even with electronic health records.  According to Joel French, CEO of SCI Solutions, "more than 25 percent of orders and referrals from employed providers leak out of network."  Chief Financial Officers across the country cite referral leakage as a top concern. According to a recent survey, 51% of CFOs list reducing network leakage as the most successful methods for generating future revenue growth. 

MCOL’s infoGraphoid for this week takes a look at some of the root causes of referral leakage as well as identifies seven ways to contain the leakage:

MCOL’s weekly infoGraphoid is a benefit for MCOL Basic members and released each Wednesday as part of the MCOL Daily Factoid e-newsletter distribution service – find out more here.


Accenture Pegs 2015 Private Exchange Enrollment at 6 Million

By Clive Riddle, April 10, 2015

Accenture has released a new report on private exchange enrollment: Private Health Insurance Exchange Enrollment Doubled from 2014 to 2015, which pegs 2015 total private exhange enrollment at 6 million, up from 3 million in 2014.

Accenture forecasts that enrollment in private health insurance exchanges will grow to 12 million in 2016 and 22 million in 2017. They have gone on record projecting "total enrollment in private exchanges to ultimately surpass state and federally funded exchanges, reaching 40 million by 2018."

Here’s more on Accenture’s findings from their report:

  • Accenture concludes that midsize employers, defined as companies with 100 to 2,500 employees, contributed most to the adoption of private health exchanges increase.
  • 76 percent of consumers with employer-sponsored coverage see health insurance as a primary factor for continuing to work at their current employer
  • Accenture points out that this limits some employers’ ability to drop or defund health coverage.
  • Accenture postulates that for such employers, "private exchanges will emerge for some as a compelling model to reduce costs and administrative burden"
  • Accenture notes that private exchange enrollment is expected to accelerate in 2017 due to looming penalties for “Cadillac” Plans.
  • Accenture  also notes that market funding is growing, citing  Aetna’s bswift acquisition of bswift and Mercer’s equity investment in Benefitfocus
  • Accenture further postulates that Accenture expects that "increased compliance requirements .. will drive employers to adopt new models for managing benefits administration."