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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.

When Chemo Saves Your Life: An Interview With Billy Tauzin

Billy Tauzin has spent most of his life in politics. He has been a member of the House of Representatives as both a democrat and a republican, though his recent experience with a rare and usually terminal cancer (duodenal adenocarcinoma) radically changed his career path and trajectory. I caught up with Mr. Tauzin by phone at the America’s Agenda conference in Miami. You may listen to our podcast conversation or read my summary of our discussion below.

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Dr. Val: Tell me a little bit about your intestinal cancer and how that changed the course of your life.

Tauzin: I was in the process of finishing up a 25-year career in Congress when one night I had a sudden, massive bleed. I was taken to the hospital and was diagnosed with a rare cancer with a poor prognosis: duodenal adenocarcinoma. There was a hole in my intestine, right next to my pancreas.

I went to Johns Hopkins to have a Whipple procedure – and as you know a Whipple procedure is one of the most aggressive types of surgery anyone can endure. They kind of split you open like a fish, pull out your innards and restructure you. They had to remove part of my stomach, intestines, and pancreas, and then reconnected it with new ducts and channels. The Whipple was supposed to cure me, but unfortunately I found out (at a follow up visit at MD Anderson) that there was still cancer in my body.

The doctor told me very frankly that I was going to die.

Dr. Val: Tell me about the experimental drug that you were introduced to at that point.

Tauzin: My doctor reviewed my options with me: I could undergo another surgery, but that would probably kill me and would be unlikely to cure the cancer. They had no approved protocol for people in my position, but there was a drug (called Avastin) that had been successful in treating colon cancer – but was not yet approved for duodenal adenocarcinoma.  The drug works by cutting off the blood supply to tumors – which meant that the drug could either damage my healing process or kill the cancer. My wife and I decided to take the risk because we had very little to lose. It was really a choice between “going to die” (my current situation) and “might die” (Avastin could cure me).

It’s a good thing we tried Avastin because it worked like a miracle. By the end of my first round of chemotherapy, the radiologist couldn’t even find the tumor on my CT scans. It was gone. I completed several courses of chemo and radiation and I’ve been cancer-free for over 5 years now.

Dr. Val: Did this miraculous recovery influence your decision to become the CEO of Phrma?

Tauzin: After I recovered from cancer, I was fortunate to be offered many different job opportunities. However, my wife looked at me and said, “You know Billy, you really ought to go to work for the people who saved your life.” And I thought, “If there’s a meaning in why I’m alive today – then surely it must be to use my experience to help patients like me across the world.”

Dr. Val: So what are you hoping to achieve at the America’s Agenda conference in Miami?

Tauzin: This conference is unusual in that we’ve gathered together a group of very disparate voices from different perspectives – labor, business, health plans, trade associations, academic medicine, etc. hosted by Donna Shalala (former Secretary of HHS) at the University of Miami. We are trying to define our commonalities so we can influence health reform more effectively.

Washington is all about differences – it’s partisan, it’s mean, and I’ve been on both sides of the aisle. I can tell you that there are good people in both parties, but they’d never know it because they consider each other enemies. What we’re trying to say here is: patients don’t sign in as democrat or republican when they register at a hospital. They sign in as sick people. This is not a partisan issue. We have a sick care system that needs to be a health care system.

Dr. Val: What should the Obama administration choose as their top priorities for health reform?

Tauzin: First of all we need to recognize that we spend 75 cents of every dollar on the damage done by 5 chronic diseases (including diabetes, heart disease, mental health, cancer, and lung disease). We must focus our system on early detection and prevention of these diseases, so that we manage them well and avoid the costly toll they take when untreated. We’re destined to be a poorer, sicker society if we don’t get insurance coverage for every American. We need insurance to provide early detection, prevention, and good management of our chronic diseases. How we do that is debatable. But we need to get there.

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