How To Save Big Money on Prescription Drugs.

If I were King of Medicare.

I am still learning how best to extract useful information from the public-use Medicare Part-D Drug Utilization and Cost files. I view these as experiments of nature worth mining for what they can tell us about the clinical and business aspects of healthcare.  The last few articles I have written focused on the utilization and cost of Insulin, highlighting the seemingly unjustified increases in this life-saving drug for diabetics.  In this tweak, I learn how to combine data from drugs in the same therapeutic category including all the brand and generic versions of individual drugs within categories. I am still wrestling with technical issues related to presenting multiple groups in a single TreeMap visualization, but as an example, I will show that in 2015 three groups of drugs– insulin, opioids, and drugs used to treat Hepatitis-C–  cost the Medicare program 17.6% of the total cost of all Part-D drugs but comprised only 7.2% of all prescriptions.  These drugs were expensive for different reasons that I will illustrate.

I particularly like the TreeMap data-visualization format because it allows hundreds if not thousands of drugs to be compared at the same time and facilitates identification of unexpected or unjustified outliers much easier.  Since Medicare is now standardizing the formats of these drug files, changes in utilization and cost can be tracked over several years.  I believe that placing such analyses into the service of policy makers and payers can allow savings of billions of dollars without compromise of care. Continue reading “How To Save Big Money on Prescription Drugs.”

Updated Look at the Rapidly Rising Cost of Insulin in Medicare Part-D Program.

The cost of Insulin to the Medicare program is frankly staggering. In brief summary, insulin is not only one of the most important drugs for beneficiaries, but also, in aggregate, one of the most expensive set of drugs used by Medicare patients.

I want to use this post to explore enhancements to Medicare’s Part-D drug utilization-and-cost files using Insulin as an example.  I have previously dissected the public use files released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to explore a number of health policy issues.  These included utilization and cost of medical services by hospitals and other providers; quality and safety issues related to hospitals; the overall monstrous rises in prices of generic and other drugs; and prescribing patterns of opioids by individual practitioners. Other analyses examined insulin utilization and cost for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. The rapid (and large) increases in the price of insulin are exemplars of the gut-punch impact of drug prices on individuals and our healthcare system.  Drug companies have diabetics and their public and private payers over a barrel.  Large numbers of patients with diabetes need the drug to keep them healthy if not alive.  In mid-2016, CMS updated and standardized their Medicare Part-D databases making them comparable for the three initial calendar years of 2013 through 2015.  I took this opportunity to take another look at Insulin.   Although only some 70% of all Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in Part-D Drug benefit programs, I suggest that prescribing patterns to these Medicare beneficiaries are not very different than those for non-Medicare adult patients and can be generalized.  To make the initial data available to some new colleagues and simply just to get a start somewhere, I placed my first peeks into the enhanced Medicare databases on my Tableau Public Site in three sets of interactive tables and visualizations individually for 20132014, and 2015. Continue reading “Updated Look at the Rapidly Rising Cost of Insulin in Medicare Part-D Program.”

Newest Proposed Treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Abruptly Changes Hands.

Less than one month after our exploration of the recent colossal price markup of a simple drug used by a vulnerable and desperate group of children and their families, a dramatic turn of events occurred which may make things better or worse. In February, the pharmaceutical company Marathon announced its marketing plans for Emflaza, its brand name for deflazacort, a simple corticosteroid widely available in other countries but not in the United States. Emflaza had recently been approved by the FDA for the treatment of symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (Duchenne MD) in the United States.   Duchenne MD is a usually fatal genetic muscular disorder of young boys for which no curative therapy is currently available, but for which corticosteroids such as deflazacort and prednisone slow the progression of weakness.  Deflazacort– the most commonly prescribed all-purpose steroid in some countries– has been used in Canada and elsewhere for the treatment of Duchenne MD for some time.  The wrinkle in Marathon’s release was that it declared an annual charge of $89,000 per child for a drug sold in many other countries for a price a measured in pennies instead of dollars.

I have already expressed my puzzlement that the FDA gave its approval to Marathon based on clinical data collected many years old by another drug company that for undisclosed reasons walked away from FDA approval. I am still looking for reliable studies that confirm that deflazacort is superior to, or safer than prednisone to treat Duchenne MD. [Prednisone is the most prescribed corticosteroid in the United States. To say that it is inexpensive would be an exaggeration!]  Perhaps a clinician without ties to the pharmaceutical industry will provide us with evidence-based data that Emflaza is an essential or even a better drug for Duchenne MD, or worth the monumental cost for any incremental benefit.

Continue reading “Newest Proposed Treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Abruptly Changes Hands.”

Is Emflaza the Latest Drug Pricing Rip-off or Not?

New Money from Old Drugs.  Are children with muscular dystrophy being served by the free market or taken advantage of?

I suspect that it is just because people are paying attention, but reports of unexplainably excessive pricing of both new and old drugs keep coming too fast to keep up with. I recently published a list of 447 drugs whose prices doubled or more between 2011 to 2015. Even that list was incomplete!  This week’s prize winner is Emflaza, a drug that was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD).

The price proposed by Marathon Pharmaceutical, LLC is $89,000 per patient per year. We may be getting desensitized to such patient-bankrupting offerings, but what makes Emflaza stand out from the offending crowd is that in Canada, where some of the original research appears to have been done, the same drug for the same disorder costs a dollar a pill or less.  As noted in the Wall Street Journal, the price set by Marathon is 50 to 70 times what most U.S. patients currently pay to buy the drug (illegally?) from on-line pharmacies in the United Kingdom.  The more I learned about Emflaza, the more troubled I became.  Allow me to share some of my discomfiture with you. Continue reading “Is Emflaza the Latest Drug Pricing Rip-off or Not?”