Fixing rising pharmaceutical drug costs once and for all

Published in RI News Today on September 27, 2021

Just days ago, WBUR.org, Boston’s NPR News Station, featuring NPR News and Programs, aired a 45.37 minute program, “Steps to Fix America’s Broken Prescription Drug System,”  clearly illustrating the need to fix America’s ailing prescription drug program.  While Americans are traveling to Mexico in search of affordable prescription drugs, referred to as “Pharmaceutical Tourism,” the NPR program added a new twist. Now some state insurance companies are sending their beneficiaries to Mexico to purchase cheaper their pharmaceuticals manufactured in the United States at a lower price, on their tab.  

For instance, let’s take a look at Ann Lovell, of  Salt Lake City, Utah. The NPR Program, aired on Sept. 24, 2021, introduced us to the hearing-impaired former teacher who worked at an early-intervention program for deaf students that’s part of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, who traveled from Utah to Mexico five times to purchase Enbrel, to treat rheumatoid arthritis, with travel costs and a $500 cash incentive paid by her insurer, the Public Employees Health Program (PEHP). 

Lovell’s Utah physician writes her a prescription, and each tie she travels to Mexico she sees a physician at the Tijuana-based hospital as well.  She updates the physician on her medical condition, gets her prescription, and takes it to the pharmacist, who gives her the medication. 

NPR’s program noted that the Utah initiative was created under a 2018 state law, “Right to Buy,” by Republican Congressman Norm Thurston.  PEHP offers it only for people who use a drug on a list of about a dozen medications were the state can see significant savings.  Of the 150,000 state and local public employees covered by the insurer, fewer than 400 are eligible to participate.

Responding to a tweet promoting the offer, Levell quickly enrolled for as they say an offer she could not refuse.  She and a companion would travel on an all-expenses paid trip from Utah to Tijuana, Mexico to pick buy her pharmaceuticals at a steep discount paid for by the state of Utah’s public insurer to slash the high cost of prescription drugs. PEHP would only have to pay half of the cost of Embrel versus if Levell got it in the United States, saving tens of thousands of dollars. The annual U.S. list price for the drug, Enbrel, is over $62,000 per patient. 

It was one long, exhausting travel day.  At 5:00 a.m., Lovell and her friend flew from Salt Lake City to San Diego.  There, an escort picked them up and took them across the boarder to a Tijuana hospital, where she got a refill on her prescription.  After that, they were shuttled back to the airport and arrived back home by midnight. 

Lovell said she initially began paying $50 a month for her pharmaceutical, increasing to $450 in co-pays.  It would have increased up to $2,500 if she hadn’t started traveling to Mexico.  Without the program, she would not be able to afford the medicine she needed

With the COVID-19 pandemic closing the borders, PEHP’s “Pharmaceutical Tourism” initiative came to an end with the borders closing.   Lovell’s insurer came up with a new option of getting Enbrel at lower cost.  That’s when Lovell was told about the drug manufacturer’s coo-pay program where she would only have to pay five dollars a month.  

Calls for Medicare Negotiating the Cost of Pharmaceuticals 

Although traveling to Mexico or Canada to purchase more affordable pharmaceuticals is a temporary fix, the Washington, DC-based AARP calls for a permanent solution.  The national AARP advocacy group has launched a $4 million ad buy calling Medicare to step in to lowering the spiraling costs of pharmaceuticals.  

The Washington, DC-AARP noted that a recent AARP survey of voters found that 80% agreed or strongly agreed that drug prices could be lowered without harming innovation of new medicines. Strong majorities of voters, regardless of political affiliation, want Congress to act on the issue this year, with 70% saying it is very important. The survey also found that 87% of voters support allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. 

AARP’s full-scale ad campaign blitz, including a $4 million ad buy, pushing back on false claims from the pharmaceutical industry that reforms would limit Americans’ access to medicines. AARP has called for fair drug prices for years and is urging Congress to pass legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, put a cap on out-of-pocket costs that older adults pay for their prescription drugs and impose penalties on drug companies that raise prices faster than the rate of inflation.

AARP’s new national ad campaign points out that Americans’ tax dollars subsidize new drug development even as Big Pharma charges Americans dramatically higher drug prices. The ad goes on to urge Congress to “stop the Big Pharma scam. Let Medicare negotiate drug prices.” Beginning tomorrow, it will air nationally on MSNBC and CNN; and in the DC metro area on the Sunday political shows and local radio stations, as well as on digital platforms including the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and Politico. In addition to paid advertising, AARP members began taking part in grassroots action beginning September 20. A social media campaign calling for older adults to #ShowYourReceipts has led thousands to share their monthly medication costs with AARP, with their monthly “bills” now running over $11 million.

“Americans are fed up with paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer in a Sept. 17, 2021 statement announcing this advertising campaign. “Our 38 million members are watching and they are counting on their members of Congress to do what’s right and vote to let Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices.”

Now, Congress Must Act…

Congress is currently debating measures to rein in the cost of prescription drugs, and the House Ways & Means Committee advanced legislation this week that includes many of AARP’s priorities on fair drug prices.

It’s time. Staff vaccinations required for nursing homes as 10 RI facilities see new COVID cases

Published in Rhode Island News Today on August 24, 2021

With the COVID-19 Delta variant spiking across the country especially among the unvaccinated, last Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced at an afternoon address at the White House that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will require nursing homes to require all workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding.

According to federal data, of the 1.6 million nursing home workers across the  nation, about 540,000 — 40 percent of the work force — are unvaccinated.  

Since the spread of the Delta variant, there has been a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, especially in those states that have low rates of vaccinated workers. Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) data confirm a strong relationship between the increase of COVID-19 cases among nursing home residents and the rate of vaccination among nursing home workers.

These new emergency federal regulations, crafted  by CDC and CMS, would apply to nearly 15,000 nursing home facilities, which employ approximately 1.6 million workers and serve approximately 1.3 million nursing home residents.

Rhode Island Gov. Dan J. McKee, along with other states, has already taken a similar step to protect nursing home residents by requiring all staff to be vaccinated and the new federal mandate will ensure consistent and equitable standards throughout the country. 

At a COVID-19 update held at the state the state capitol in early August, McKee called for the new vaccine mandate (as a term of employment) to take effect on Oct. 1st.

On August 23rd, Pfizer’s vaccine was fully approved by the FDA. Approvals of Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and booster shots are expected to follow soon.

According to CMS, the new mandate is a key component of protecting the health and safety of nursing home residents and staff by ensuring that all nursing home staff receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Over the past several months, millions of vaccinations have been administered to nursing home residents and staff, and these vaccines have shown to help prevent COVID-19 and have proven to be effective against the Delta variant.

“Keeping nursing home residents and staff safe is our priority. The data are clear that higher levels of staff vaccination are linked to fewer outbreaks among residents, many of whom are at an increased risk of infection, hospitalization, or death,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure in a statement announcing the new vaccine mandate.  “We will continue to work closely with our partners at the CDC, long-term care associations, unions, and other stakeholders to advance policies that keep residents and staff safe. As we advance these new requirements, we’ll work with nursing homes to address staff and resident concerns with compassion and by following the science,” she said.

CMS says that it’s requiring all nursing home staff to be vaccinated is in keeping with the federal agency’s authority to establish requirements to ensure the health and safety of individuals receiving care from all providers and suppliers participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. About 62% of nursing home staff are currently vaccinated as of August 8 nationally, and vaccination among staff at the state level ranges from a high of 88% to a low of 44%. The emergence of the Delta variant in the United States has driven a rise in cases among nursing home residents from a low of 319 cases on June 27, to 2,696 cases on August 8, with many of the recent outbreaks occurring in facilities located in areas of the United States with the lowest staff vaccination rates.

Last May, CMS issued new regulations that require Long-Term Care (LTC) facilities and Intermediate Care Facilities for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities (ICFs/IID) to educate residents, clients, and staff about COVID-19 vaccination and, when available, offer a COVID-19 vaccine to these individuals. These regulations also mandate that LTC facilities report weekly COVID-19 vaccination data for residents and staff to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN).

CMS will continue to analyze vaccination data for residents and staff from the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) data as an additional method of compliance monitoring and in keeping with current practice, as well as deploy the Quality Improvement Organizations (QIOs)—operated under the Medicare Quality Improvement Program—to educate and engage nursing homes with low rates of vaccinations.

CMS strongly encourages nursing home residents and staff members to get vaccinated as the Agency undergoes the necessary steps in the rule-making process over the course of the next several weeks. CMS expects nursing home operators to act in the best interest of residents and their staff by complying with these new rules, which the Agency expects to issue next month.  CMS also expects nursing home operators to use all available resources to support employees in getting vaccinated, including employee education and vaccination clinics, as they work to meet this staff vaccination requirement.

Rhode Island Long Term Care Facilities with new cases in the last 14 days (as of 8/14/2020):

These RI nursing homes are on the RI Dept. of Health list with increased cases –

Alpine – Coventry – 5-9 cases

Avalone – Warwick – less than 5

St. Antoine – North Smithfield – less than 5

Woonsocket Health – Woonsocket – less than 5

All America Assisted Living – Warwick – less than 5

Anchor Bay – Johnston – less than 5

Smithfield Woods – Smithfield – less than 5

Sunrise House – Providence – less than 5

Bridge at Cherry Hill – Johnston – 5-9

Tockwotton – Providence – less than 5

AARP Strongly Supports Biden’s Vaccine Mandate in Nursing Homes 

In response to the Biden Administration directing all nursing homes that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds to require vaccinations for all staff, Nancy A. LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, stated:  

“The Administration’s announcement today requiring vaccinations for nursing home staff is a significant step in the fight against this pandemic. Around 30% of COVID deaths have been among residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, even though they represent less than 1% of the population. As the new variants are emerging, facilities cannot let preventable problems be repeated. Increasing vaccination rates in nursing homes is one of the most common sense and powerful actions we can take to protect the lives of vulnerable older adults.”

The AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the dashboard to provide snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff, with the goal of identifying specific areas of concern at the national and state levels in a timely manner.

Don’t Just Single Out Nursing Homes 

“We appreciate the Administration’s efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccinations in long term care. Unfortunately, this action does not go far enough. The government should not single out one provider group for mandatory vaccinations. Vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings. Without this, nursing homes face a disastrous workforce challenge,” warns Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) 

“Focusing only on nursing homes will cause vaccine hesitant workers to flee to other health care providers and leave many centers without adequate staff to care for residents. It will make an already difficult workforce shortage even worse. The net effect of this action will be the opposite of its intent and will affect the ability to provide quality care to our residents. We look forward to working with the Administration in the coming days to develop solutions to overcome this challenge,” says Parkinson.

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how COVID is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes.

AARP concerned for working caregivers. Advice from Dr. Michael Fine

Published in RINewsToday on August 9, 2021

After the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic initially shuttered the nation’s businesses over a year ago and with Delta variant cases now surging among the 50 percent of the population not fully vaccinated, AARP releases a 17-page report exploring the concerns of working caregivers about returning to pre-pandemic business routines. 

AARP’s national survey, examining caregiver concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, was conducted by phone and online panel on July 1-7, 2021, and included 800 U.S. residents 18 years or older who are currently providing unpaid care to an adult relative or friend and employed either full-time or part-time (but not self-employed).

Six in ten caregivers responding to the survey were paid hourly, while nearly four in ten are salaried workers. Almost seven in ten say that their job is “essential.” 

The researchers found that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how working caregivers balanced their work and caregiving roles. Four in five caregivers expressed feeling stressed by juggling these dual responsibilities. More than three in five of the respondents say that they were spending more time caring for their loved one(s). When asked about the next 12 months, two-thirds of all working caregivers expect some, or a great deal of, difficulty balancing both job and caregiving roles. 

According to the AARP study, “Working Caregivers’ and Desires in a Post-Pandemic Workplace,” about half of working family caregivers were offered new benefits during the pandemic, including flexible hours (65%), paid leave (34%) and mental health or self-care resources (37%). About half of those surveyed were able to telework due to COVID 19; by early July, 22% were still working from home full time and 30% were working from home at least part-time. For those who could work from home, nearly nine in 10 said it helped them balance work and care responsibilities – and 75% are worried about how they will manage when their pre-pandemic schedules resume.

“Employers would be wise to consider how benefits like paid leave and flexible hours can help the one in six workers who are also caring for a loved one,” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President, AARP Research in an Aug. 4 statement released announcing the release of the report. “Living through the pandemic was challenging for working family caregivers – while some were helped by new workplace benefits and flexibility, the vast majority are worried about how to balance both roles going forward. Our research opens a window into how the pandemic changed the workplace and what working caregivers are concerned about in the coming year,” says Bryant.

As offices and other in-person workplaces begin to slowly re-open, many caregivers expressed concerns that they would bring the virus home to infect loved ones (63%) or contract COVID at work (53%). About three in five are worried about leaving the person they care for alone while they go to work. Among those who were able to work at home during the pandemic, almost nine in ten would like the option to continue doing so at least some of the time. And more than four in ten caregivers said they would consider looking for a new job if the benefits they were offered during the pandemic were rolled back.

AARP offers a range of free tools and resources to help employers retain working caregivers, including tip sheets, tool kits and online training for managers. The resources are available at www.aarp.org/employercaregivin

Dr. Michael FineThe pandemic of the unvaccinated

Don’t let your guard down, even if you’re vaccinated, warns Dr. Michael Fine, the former Rhode Island Director of the Department of Health. As the COVID-19 Delta variant cases spike across the nation, “it’s the pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he says. “Now 97% of the hospitalized are unvaccinated. As community transmission rises, it is more likely that vaccinated people will get infected and spread the virus,” he says.

Dr. Fine further responded to requests about how we should approach this latest wave of COVID in Rhode Island:

“For most vaccinated people, Covid-19 will be a mild disease,” says Fine.  For those with chronic disease like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, COPD and cancer, one study from Israel suggests that the risk of hospitalization and death is equal to the unvaccinated,” he says.  

“As community transition rises, I’m expecting some hospitalizations and death in vaccinated people with chronic disease. That group would do well to self-isolate — to stay home and let others shop for them, until community transmission falls to less than 35/100,000/week. We are now a place with high transmission, about 140/100,000/week,” states Fine.

Fine urges businesses to require all employees working together to be vaccinated, wear masks and get weekly Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests for the COVID-19 virus.

Teleconferencing technology should replace onsite or outside meetings, he says.  

Working caregivers can be protected from bringing COVID-19 home by being vaccinated and should get two PCR tests a week, and limit contact with other people by avoiding shopping at stores or going to restaurants.