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What’s Big Pharma’s Position On Healthcare Reform?

Today I participated in a conference call with Billy Tauzin, CEO of PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America). The goal of the call was to let bloggers know about PhRMA’s position on healthcare reform. I counted at least 12 bloggers on the call, and I was the only physician. It pains me to see how few physicians participate in reform discussions and I’d like to get more of us involved.

The salient points, as I understood them, were:

1.    PhRMA would like all Americans to have health insurance. They believe that Medicare Part D is a model health insurance program. They do not support a single payer system because it would likely attempt to cut costs by rationing care and denying options to patients. They don’t believe that insurance coverage mandates are a good idea unless the insurance is subsidized to the point of being affordable for all. They favor the current public (Medicare and Medicaid for the elderly, poor, or disabled) private blend of insurance, with roughly 50% of the population in each category.
2.    PhRMA would like to support “precision medicine” where treatments are tailored more effectively to the individual. Mr. Tauzin suggested that some FDA-approved drugs are only effective for 30% of the patients in a given disease class. He’d like to see more research devoted to figuring out why that is, and supports comparative clinical effectiveness research insofar as it furthers this agenda.
3.    PhRMA wants to preserve the unique features of the American healthcare system – to maintain our leadership in biomedical research and new drug development, and to protect the sacred shared decision-making between physicians and patients (to shield it from government intervention).
4.    PhRMA wants to support IT infrastructure that would track patient medication compliance and let physicians know when/if they fill their prescriptions.

Now, the business case for all four of these positions is clear – the pharmaceutical industry benefits from having everyone able to afford medications (i.e. universal coverage), personalized medicine would reward the development of new and innovative drugs and establish a consumer base for many different treatments, protecting the doctor-patient relationship allows for off-label use of medications and a broader array of similar drugs, and IT infrastructure would help to increase drug purchase and compliance with treatment regimens, thus increasing overall sales.

However, the truth is that PhRMA’s positions on healthcare reform – beneficial as they are to themselves – also happen to be beneficial to patients. Increasing the number of insured improves access to medical care, personalized medicine could create more effective treatments with fewer failure rates and side effects, shared-decision making empowers patients to make the right decisions for their circumstances (with their physician’s guidance), and IT solutions that facilitate medication adherence, tracking, and reminder systems could improve patient health outcomes and keep them out of the hospital.

So, in a way pharmaceutical companies, advocacy groups, and physicians are fairly well aligned on many aspects of healthcare reform. Now if certain members of Big Pharma would please give up on those “me-too” drugs, stop creating more expensive medicines by simply combining two perfectly good ones into a new pill, stop hiding negative research studies, and refrain from aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing tactics, we might all really be on the same page.


Interesting factoids from call:

  • Medicines only account for 10% of total healthcare costs (unchanged from the 1960s), but they “feel” like a larger cost driver because health insurance doesn’t cover their cost as completely as they do hospital fees.
  • There are about 750 new cancer drugs in the research pipeline.
  • Half of all prescriptions remain unfilled.
  • Physicians provide 30 billion dollars a year in free care.
  • The United States conducts 70% of the world’s research in biomedicines.

Please check out Billy Tauzin’s amazing story of triumph over cancer.

Health Care Policy Summit Brings Together Unlikely Allies

Better Health’s policy writer, Gwen Mayes, caught wind of an interesting new conference being held tomorrow in Miami. She interviewed Ken Thorpe, Ph.D., one of the conference organizers, to get the scoop. You may listen to a podcast of their discussion or read the highlights below. I may get the chance to interview Billy Tauzin and Donna Shalala later on this week to get their take on healthcare reform initiatives likely to advance in 2009. Stay tuned…

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Mayes:  Tell us about the upcoming conference in Miami on January 28th called “America’s Agenda: Health Care Policy Summit Conversation.”

Thorpe:  The conference will start a conversation on the different elements of health care reform such as making health care more affordable and less expensive, finding ways to improve the quality of care and ways to expand coverage to the uninsured.  The conference is unique in that we’ve brought together a wide range of participants including government, labor, and industry for the discussion, many of whom have been combatants over this issue in the past.

Mayes:  Will there be other meetings?

Thorpe:  This is the first of several.  There will others in other parts of country over next several months.  President Obama and HHS Secretary Designee Tom Daschle have talked about engaging the public in the discussion this time around.  So part of this is an educational mission and part of it is to reach consensus among different groups that have not always agreed in the past.

Mayes:  What encourages you that these groups will be more likely to reach consensus now when they haven’t in the past?

Thorpe:  The main difference is that the cost of health care has gotten to the point that many businesses and most workers are finding it unaffordable.  In the past, most businesses felt that, left to their own devices, they could do a better job of controlling health costs by focusing on innovated approaches internally.  What we’ve found, despite our best efforts, working individually we haven’t done anything to control the growth of health care spending.    The problems go beyond the reach of any individual business or payer and we need to work collectively.

Mayes: How will health care reform remain a priority in this economy?

Thorpe:  The two go hand in hand.  As part of our ability to improve the economy we’re going we have to find a way to get health care costs down.  Spiraling costs are a major impediment to doing business and hiring workers.  To the extent we can find new ways to afford health care it will be good for business and workers.

Mayes:  Health information technology is also an important aspect.  What are the common stumbling blocks to moving forward?

Thorpe:  There are three issues we have to deal with.  First, we have to have a common set of standards for how the information flows between physicians and physicians, and with payers and hospitals.  What we call interoperability standards.   Second, we have to safeguard the information.  Finally, cost is the biggest challenge because most small physician practices of 3 or 4 physicians don’t have electronic record systems in place.  To put in a state-of-the-art system can cost $40,000 per physician and most cannot afford this expense.  I think the stimulus bill will provide funds to help with these costs.

Mayes:  There’s always growing interest in the patient’s role.  How will this be addressed?

Thorpe:  We have to find a better way to engage patients in doing better job of reducing weight, improving diet and those with chronic disease to follow their care plan they worked out with their physician.  We also want to make it more cost effective for patients to comply with the plan.  Patients who comply with health plans will have better outcomes at lower costs. 

Mayes:  Who’s on the agenda in Miami?

Thorpe:  It’s at the University of Miami so it will be hosted by President Donna Shalala who was Secretary of HHS under the Clinton administration so she is well versed on health policy.  Also attending is the head of PhRMA, Billy Tauzin, a former Congressman and former majority leader of the House, Dick Gephart.  There will be some lay people as well for a nice cross section of consumers, labor, providers, business and others.

Mayes:  How can people learn more about American’s Agenda and the conference?

Thorpe:  The executive director of American’s Agenda is Mark Blum.  He can be reached at 202-262-0700 or at America’s

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