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There may be few issues that unite Americans ahead of the 2020 election as do their concerns about the cost of prescription drugs.
A clear majority — 75% — of respondents to a July survey said the cost of prescription medicines would be among the factors likely to influence their votes this year, according to a report from Gallup and the nonprofit West Health. Gallup reported on results from 1,007 interviews conducted with adults between July 1 and July 24.
1. What are the 2020 presidential candidates saying they will do to lower drug prices?
Both President Donald Trump, a Republican, and former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, have highlighted insulin costs in their discussions of the need to lower drug prices.
In a January interview with the New York Times editorial board, Biden noted the widespread discontent among Americans about sticker shock often experienced at pharmacies. He spoke of a need for the federal government to act to make medicines more affordable.
“This is a place where I find, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you think you’re getting screwed on drug prices. And you are, in terms of everything from insulin to inhalers and a whole range of other things,” Biden said. “So, again, can I guarantee that it gets done? No, but I can tell you what, if anybody can get it done, I can, and I think there’s a consensus for it.”
2. Why doesn’t Medicare, the biggest U.S. purchaser of drugs, directly negotiate on drug prices?
Congress has taken different approaches in designing the terms under which the two largest federal health programs, Medicaid and Medicare, buy drugs.
Medicaid is a program run by states with federal contributions and oversight. It covers people with low incomes and disabilities. Almost 67 million people were enrolled in Medicaid as of May 2020, including about 29 million children. In 1990 Congress decided that drugmakers who want to have their products covered by Medicaid must give rebates to the government. The initial rebate is equal to 23.1% of the average manufacturer price (AMP) for most drugs, or the AMP minus the best price provided to most other private-sector payers, whichever is greater. An additional rebate kicks in when prices rise faster than general inflation.
3. What’s the deal with rebates and discounts?
There’s widespread frustration among lawmakers and policy analysts about the lack of clarity about the role of middlemen in the supply chain for medicines. Known as pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), these businesses describe the aim of their business as making drugs more affordable for consumers. Insurers like Cigna and UnitedHealth operate some of the nation’s largest PBMs, as does pharmacy giant CVS Health, which also owns insurer Aetna.
“They will tell you their mission is to lower drug costs,” said Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, a Georgia Republican, a pharmacist and a critic of PBMs, in a speech on the House floor last year. “My question to you would be: How is that working out?”
4. What is the “distinctly American” phenomenon of specialty drugs?
Kesselheim also has written on what he terms “Specialty Drugs — A Distinctly American Phenomenon.” That’s the title of a 2020 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine Kesselheim authored with Huseyin Naci, an associate professor of health policy at the London School of Economics.
In this Perspective article, Kesselheim and Naci look at how the “specialty” designation morphed from its origin in the 1970s. It then referred to a need for extra steps for preparation and delivery of new injectable and infusion products.
5. How much does it cost to bring a new drug to market anyway?
The median cost for a medicine developed in recent years was $985 million, according to a study published in JAMA in March 2020, “Estimated Research and Development Investment Needed to Bring a New Medicine to Market, 2009-2018.”
“Rising drug prices have attracted public debate in the United States and abroad on fairness of drug pricing and revenues,” write the study’s authors: Olivier J. Wouters of the London School of Economics; Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and Jeroen Luyten of Leuven Institute for Healthcare Policy, KU Leuven, Belgium. “Central to this debate is the scale of research and development investment by companies that is required to bring new medicines to market.”
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The Fix: Invisible light guided by AI?
Haque, who compiled the 170 scientific papers cited in the Nature article, said the field is based largely on the convergence of two technological trends: the availability of infrared sensors that are inexpensive enough to build into high-risk care-giving environments, and the rise of machine learning systems as a way to use sensor input to train specialized AI applications in health care.
These alert systems are being tested to see if they can reduce the number of ICU patients who get nosocomial infections — potentially deadly illnesses contracted by patients due to failure of other people in the hospital to fully adhere to infection prevention protocols.
Constant monitoring by ambient intelligence systems in a home environment could also be used to detect clues of serious illness or potential accidents, and alert caregivers to make timely interventions. For instance, when frail seniors start moving more slowly or stop eating regularly, such behaviors can presage depression, a greater likelihood of a fall or the rapid onset of a dangerous health crisis. Researchers are developing activity recognition algorithms that can sift through infrared sensing data to detect changes in habitual behaviors, and help caregivers get a more holistic view of patient well-being.
From 2019 to 2020, there was a substantial increase in the proportion of older adults who reported that their health care providers offered telehealth visits. In May 2019, 14% of older adults said that their health care providers offered telehealth visits, compared to 62% in June 2020.
Similarly, the percentage of older adults who had ever participated in a telehealth visit rose sharply from 4% in May 2019 to 30% in June 2020. Of those surveyed in 2020, 6% reported having a telehealth visit prior to March 2020, while 26% reported having a telehealth visit in the period from March to June 2020.
Over the past year, some concerns about telehealth visits decreased among adults age 50–80 whether or not they had a telehealth visit. Older adults’ concerns about privacy in telehealth visits decreased from 49% in May 2019 to 24% in June 2020, and concerns about having difficulty seeing or hearing health care providers in telehealth visits decreased from 39% in May 2019 to 25% in June 2020. Concerns about not feeling personally connected to the health care provider decreased slightly (49% to 45%).