“Until 2003, Medicare covered most hospital and doctor visits for the elderly, but it did not cover the ever-growing costs of prescription medications. Former President George W. Bush changed that when he signed a law adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare.
But there was a catch.
At drug companies’ behest, the Republican-controlled Congress banned Medicare from using its market power to drive down drug prices. The prohibition was controversial at the time — Nancy Pelosi, then the House Minority Leader, called it “unconscionable.” Critics saw the prohibition as the government’s abandonment of the single most effective tool for restraining drug costs.
In the years since, the prices for brand-name prescription drugs have skyrocketed, and the prohibition on negotiation has become even more controversial. Higher prices mean larger co-payments for drugs for some seniors, many of whom live on fixed incomes. It’s also a major budgetary problem: From 2018 to 2021, Medicare spending on the 10 top-selling drugs jumped from $22 billion to $48 billion, far outpacing the program’s overall cost growth over the same period.
That’s why, in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats partly undid the prohibition. Under the law, Medicare will pay a much-reduced price for drugs that consume a disproportionate share of Medicare spending, ultimately saving an estimated $100 billion over the next ten years.”
“Although the Inflation Reduction Act marks the most substantial change in how we pay for drugs in two decades, it doesn’t change the fact that drug companies will still be rewarded for bringing a drug to market and selling as much of it as they can — whether or not the drug works very well.
Medicare could pave the way toward smarter drug development by paying more for more effective drugs and less for drugs that are less effective. That would send the right signals about where drug companies should target their research investments. The Inflation Reduction Act isn’t that law. We’ll spend less on prescription drugs because of it, and that’s all to the good, but we won’t be spending any smarter.”
“Some drugs are (literally) worth their weight in gold. Think of Sovaldi and Harvoni, which were approved a decade ago and can cure Hepatitis C, a deadly viral disease that once afflicted between 3 and 5 million Americans. Paying a lot for cures encourages drug companies to invest in developing drugs with curative potential.
But most drugs aren’t cures. Drug companies generally earn more, in fact, on drugs that patients take over an extended period. That helps explain why fully one quarter of all drug approvals are for cancer drugs. They’re really profitable, even though they often don’t work very well.”
“How we pay for drugs, in short, sends the wrong signals to the market about the kind of innovation we value. The good news is we can fix that. As law professor Rachel Sachs has argued, Medicare and Medicaid (and to some extent private insurers as well) are required by law to cover all FDA-approved drugs, whatever their value to human health. That linkage can be severed. We could give CMS the authority not only to drive down the prices of the most expensive drugs, as the IRA does, but also give it the power to pay less for, or even exclude coverage for, drugs of marginal efficacy.
Connecting payment to value would be complicated, and there’s no perfect way to do it. It would also be controversial: Paying less for some novel therapies would likely restrict access to therapies that some patients desperately want. But we’d send much smarter signals to drug manufacturers about where to target their investment dollars. And the benefits of better-targeted innovation would accumulate over time, vastly improving human health in the long run.
The IRA was meant to save the taxpayers’ money, not to improve their health. That was worth doing. But the next reform to payment policy ought to aim higher.”
“The reality is that myocarditis is relatively low on the list of conditions that can cause a young athlete’s heart to stop. A range of uncommon conditions are more likely to underlie these events, and they’re not new: Medical experts have been
“The EU capitals point out that 40 percent of all pharmaceutical ingredients globally are sourced from China, and that production for many of these products is concentrated in just a handful of manufacturing sites. “As a result, Europe (and the world) depend on a few manufacturers for a large bulk of their medicines supply,” notes the paper.”
“Perhaps the greatest success of the American health care system these last few benighted years is this surprising fact: The uninsured rate has reached a historic low of about 8 percent.
That’s thanks in part to the pandemic — or, more precisely, the slew of emergency provisions that the government enacted in response to the Covid crisis.
One policy was likely the single largest factor. Over the past three years, under an emergency pandemic measure, states have stopped double-checking if people who are enrolled in Medicaid are still eligible for its coverage. If you were enrolled in Medicaid in March 2020, or if you became eligible at any point during the pandemic, you have remained eligible the entire time no matter what, even if your income later went up.
But in April, that will end — states will be re-checking every Medicaid enrollee’s eligibility, an enormous administrative undertaking that will put health insurance coverage for millions of Americans at risk.
The Biden administration estimates upward of 15 million people — one-sixth of the roughly 90 million Americans currently receiving Medicaid benefits — could lose coverage, a finding that independent analysts pretty much agree with. Those are coverage losses tantamount to a major economic downturn: By comparison, from 2007 to 2009, amid the worst economic downturn of most Americans’ lifetimes, an estimated 9 million Americans lost their insurance.”
“Infectious disease experts knew this year might be an outlier. Covid-19 has been the biggest disruption to the normal cycle of disease in a century, and we know from prior experience that major pandemics can be followed by a year or two of chaotic viral behavior before settling into a more normal pattern. It happened with both the 1918 flu and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
For RSV and influenza, the past two years have been aberrations; it is reasonable to expect more normal patterns will resume in the future as immunity builds back up. (Still, every cold-and-flu season will be different — variation from season to season is a constant.)
“My guess is that this is entirely temporary and things will settle down into more routine patterns in coming seasons as typical population immunity gets back on track,” said Richard Webby, an infectious disease researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Covid-19 is trickier to project, given its continuing evolution toward more transmissibility. So far, the protection from prior infection and vaccines seems to be effective for most people, at least in preventing them from ending up in the hospital. But it also continues to pose a threat to the unvaccinated, the elderly, and the immunocompromised — and yearly surges when the conditions are more favorable for viral spread (i.e., the winter) are to be expected.”
“According to a 2022 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “on average, the number of ongoing drug shortages has been increasing and are lasting longer.” The root cause of that problem, per a report from the Food and Drug Administration, is the economics of the pharmaceutical market itself.
The reasons for shortages are generally consistent no matter the drug: either a shortage of raw materials or a problem at the plant where the drug is manufactured. Shortages for medicines that a patient can pick up at the pharmacy often draw the most headlines, but most of the medications that end up in short supply are generic, injectable drugs that are used in hospitals: usually, these drugs have only one or two suppliers. So if there is a problem at the factory of one company, there is not an easy way to scale up production to make up for a shortfall. And they are usually cheap, which means the companies that manufacture them do not have a strong economic incentive to produce any excess supply.”
““It makes a lot of sense when you think about it from their perspective. But when you think about it from the hospital perspective, it’s very frustrating.”
Some of these shortages have led directly to patient deaths. An Associated Press report in 2011 linked at least 15 deaths over the prior 15 months to drug shortages. A more recent study, following the year-long shortage of a drug used to treat septic shock, found higher mortality rates for patients who relied on a substitute. Even short of death, drug shortages can meaningfully change the care patients get — if, for example, a pregnant person undergoes a cesarean delivery, with its higher risk of complications and longer recovery time, because the drug that could have induced labor earlier is out of stock.
Experts do have ideas about how to make the pharmaceutical supply chain more resilient. But they require action by the federal government. Until that happens, there is little reason to think the pace and duration of America’s drug shortages will slow down.”
“These companies rely on razor-thin margins and massive scale to make their business work. They have a “just in time” production schedule, which means almost as soon as the product rolls out of the factory, it is delivered to health care providers. There aren’t warehouses with emergency stockpiles, because it wouldn’t really make financial sense for manufacturers to produce and store the excess supply.”
“When victims of rape or sexual violence seek emergency medical assistance following an attack, they may be saddled with hundreds or even thousands of dollars in medical bills, a new study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine found.
These bills can further traumatize victims, the study authors warn, and deter others from seeking professional help. Only one-fifth of sexual violence victims are estimated to seek medical care following an attack.”
“Florida’s medical board on Friday voted to begin the process of banning gender-affirming medical treatment for youths, a move that comes as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has become increasingly vocal in his opposition to such therapies.”
“The board also voted to start that process for requiring adults seeking such care to wait 24 hours before going forward with any medical procedures.”
“The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association support gender-affirming care for adults and adolescents. But medical experts said gender-affirming care for children rarely, if ever, includes surgery. Instead, doctors are more likely to recommend counseling, social transitioning and hormone replacement therapy.
The proposed rule is the latest step taken by the DeSantis administration to tighten regulatory controls over gender-affirming care. Florida’s Medicaid regulator is also considering a rule that would block state-subsidized health care from paying for treatments of transgender people.”
“Hospitals across the country are grappling with widespread staffing shortages, complicating preparations for a potential Covid-19 surge as the BA.5 subvariant drives up cases, hospital admissions and deaths.
Long-standing problems, worker burnout and staff turnover have grown worse as Covid-19 waves have hit health care workers again and again — and as more employees fall sick with Covid-19 themselves.”