Perspectives

Perspectives on MedImpact’s New Program to Accelerate Pharmacogenomics

July 9, 2020

With precision medicine an increasingly hot topic in health care, MedImpact is betting that a newly launched program — which reviews every drug prescribed to patients against their genetic profile — will simultaneously give the PBM a competitive edge and improve care, AIS Health reported.

In a Feb. 26 press release, MedImpact describes its new program as the industry’s first “any drug, any time, any prescriber” approach to pharmacogenomics (PGx).

With precision medicine an increasingly hot topic in health care, MedImpact is betting that a newly launched program — which reviews every drug prescribed to patients against their genetic profile — will simultaneously give the PBM a competitive edge and improve care, AIS Health reported.

In a Feb. 26 press release, MedImpact describes its new program as the industry’s first “any drug, any time, any prescriber” approach to pharmacogenomics (PGx).

“Pharmacogenetics, in the most basic sense, is looking at someone’s genes to determine their drug-metabolizing enzymes,” explains Emily Cicali, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy. For people who have lower levels of drug-metabolizing enzymes, certain medications may be less effective or ineffective, and for those have too much of those enzymes, that could overactivate drugs and “put people at risk for toxicity,” Cicali adds.

The concept of a PBM having a PGx program isn’t new, MedImpact acknowledges in its release. But up until now, most PGx programs generally operated along the lines of “one gene being tested for one drug at one point in time” to determine if there’s a potential conflict, says Karen Geary, the company’s vice president of strategy and innovation. MedImpact’s program, however, screens for genetic interactions with more than 240 commonly prescribed medications and then reviews all future prescriptions for potential drug-gene issues.

Michael Schneider, a principal at Avalere Health, says that if a program like MedImpact’s is able to significantly avert problems like adverse drug events, “then I think this type of analysis could have a big impact on the PBM industry and potentially become the standard of care.”

However, if genetic testing becomes more commonplace across wider swaths of the population, there could be downsides, he suggests. For example, the expense of large-scale genetic testing might trickle down from plan sponsors to consumers in the form of higher premiums.

Perspectives on COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

June 25, 2020

The rollout of a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is an unprecedented logistical challenge. So will be deciding who gets it: experts say that the initial vaccine supply will not be large enough to dose everyone who wants it — and payers and PBMs will have a large role to play in distributing the medicine to the right people quickly.

David Simchi-Levi, Ph.D., a systems engineer who studies manufacturing and supply chain at MIT, tells AIS Health that it’s inevitable that vaccine supply will not meet demand when it is available. “The question will be, who gets it?” he says.

The rollout of a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is an unprecedented logistical challenge. So will be deciding who gets it: experts say that the initial vaccine supply will not be large enough to dose everyone who wants it — and payers and PBMs will have a large role to play in distributing the medicine to the right people quickly.

David Simchi-Levi, Ph.D., a systems engineer who studies manufacturing and supply chain at MIT, tells AIS Health that it’s inevitable that vaccine supply will not meet demand when it is available. “The question will be, who gets it?” he says.

Mike Schneider, a principal at Avalere Health and a former executive at CVS Health Corp.’s Caremark PBM, says that given the likely scarcity of the vaccine, areas hardest hit by COVID-19 should be the focus of the initial supply.

“I think the payers will probably try to stay out of the way as much as possible, and let local laws determine who can get a vaccine and probably local health departments determine who can get the vaccine before others,” Schneider says. He adds that payers should also use prior authorization matched to FDA guidance to ensure the right people are dosed.

When a vaccine is available, Schneider expects retail pharmacies to play a large role in delivery. He cites retail pharmacy chains’ rollout of drive-through SARS-CoV-2 testing and the annual ritual of getting a flu shot from a pharmacist as examples of what delivering the coronavirus vaccine could look like. Along the same lines, he expects primary care practitioners to perform some inoculations.

Even a well-managed rollout will only be a first step. Manufacturing and supply chain concerns will dictate the supply of vaccines available in the U.S. going forward. So will trade, as most medicines are manufactured in China and India. Those countries will certainly want to care for their own citizens as soon as possible, which could delay the release of vaccine here.

Given all that uncertainty, Schneider expects that a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine could be a perennial component of formularies, along the lines of the flu vaccine. Schneider expects that receiving the coronavirus vaccine will be a routine preventive treatment that costs patients little to nothing.

Perspectives on ACA Exchanges Amid COVID-19

June 11, 2020

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reverberate throughout the U.S. economy, it’s become clear that there will be a major enrollment shift away from employer-sponsored plans and into Medicaid and the individual market, AIS Health reported.

In fact, one analysis suggested that there could be “unprecedented growth” in the individual health insurance market. “The impact of COVID-19-related job losses will likely more than double the current enrollment in Individual & Marketplace plans, with the potential for the Individual market to triple in size to over 35 million in a sustained and severe economic contraction,” stated the analysis from A2 Strategy Group.

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reverberate throughout the U.S. economy, it’s become clear that there will be a major enrollment shift away from employer-sponsored plans and into Medicaid and the individual market, AIS Health reported.

In fact, one analysis suggested that there could be “unprecedented growth” in the individual health insurance market. “The impact of COVID-19-related job losses will likely more than double the current enrollment in Individual & Marketplace plans, with the potential for the Individual market to triple in size to over 35 million in a sustained and severe economic contraction,” stated the analysis from A2 Strategy Group.

Such growth, the report said, “will come from newly unemployed individuals in all states who exceed Medicaid eligibility thresholds” because of money they receive from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. And in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, nearly all of the newly unemployed who earn below 100% of the federal poverty level could qualify for Affordable Care Act premium subsidies.

Another analysis from the Urban Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), estimated that if U.S. unemployment reaches 20%, 25 million people would lose employer-sponsored health insurance. “Of these, 11.8 million would gain Medicaid coverage, 6.2 million would gain marketplace or other private coverage, and 7.3 million would become uninsured,” it stated.

Katherine Hempstead, the senior adviser to the executive vice president at RWJF, says it’s possible the coming enrollment shifts will cause some health insurers to re-evaluate their level of participation in the ACA exchanges, which some large insurers left in 2017 and 2018 before the market stabilized.

In fact, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said on May 12 that UnitedHealth filed to offer plans on the sate’s ACA exchange in 2021, bringing the total number of insurers in that market from two to three.

Ari Gottlieb, a principal at A2 Strategy Group, says the effect may be even stronger after 2021.

“If the market doubles to 25 or 30 million, some of that will probably fall off, but some of that will probably stay,” he says. “I think even a year or two from now, we’re going to have a bigger individual market than we had before.”

Perspectives on Surge of Mental Health Meds Use Amid COVID-19

May 28, 2020

Newly released data from Express Scripts shows that the number of prescriptions filled per week for antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications combined jumped 21% between mid-February and mid-March — reaching a zenith during the week ending March 15, when the COVID-19 outbreak officially reached pandemic status. And analytics from UnitedHealth Group’s OptumRx showed prescription increases of 15% for anti-anxiety medications, 14% for antidepressants and 5% for anti-insomnia medications during the month of March.

Newly released data from Express Scripts shows that the number of prescriptions filled per week for antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications combined jumped 21% between mid-February and mid-March — reaching a zenith during the week ending March 15, when the COVID-19 outbreak officially reached pandemic status. And analytics from UnitedHealth Group’s OptumRx showed prescription increases of 15% for anti-anxiety medications, 14% for antidepressants and 5% for anti-insomnia medications during the month of March.

Industry consultants tell AIS Health that they’re not at all surprised that the use of such medications is spiking. And they say that situation creates an urgent opportunity for companies that combine a health insurer with a PBM — like Express Scripts parent company Cigna Corp. and its peers — to leverage their unique insights into members’ health.

“Pharmacies are often the most utilized part of the benefit compared to medical or behavioral, but now, an increase in some pharmacy utilization can actually signal a need to use more of the behavioral benefit,” Peter Manoogian, principal at the health care consulting firm ZS Associates, tells AIS Health.

Rita Numerof, Ph.D., president and founder of the consulting firm Numerof & Associates, says health care organizations should conduct generalized outreach to members that stresses non-pharmaceutical coping mechanisms when appropriate. “Practical guidance, and not looking at this as a mental illness or a mental health issue, in the face of this kind of crisis, is really important,” she tells AIS Health.

For its part, UnitedHealth opened up an emotional support help line and is offering a free on-demand emotional support mobile app called Sanvello to help people “cope with stress, anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a company spokesperson.

Express Scripts, meanwhile, is offering a “digital mental health platform” to its clients at no cost, which “enables members to build resilience and develop skills to better manage stress and sleep issues,” according to Rochelle Henderson, Ph.D., vice president of health services research at the PBM.

Perspectives on Coronavirus Antibody Testing

May 14, 2020

With the Trump administration anxious to “reopen” the U.S. economy and ease the social-distancing measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, officials have pointed to antibody testing as a critical tool to accomplish those goals. To that end, the administration on April 11 issued a document clarifying that most private health plans must cover such tests, which detect antibodies against the new coronavirus found in the blood of people who have been infected and now may be immune.

With the Trump administration anxious to “reopen” the U.S. economy and ease the social-distancing measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, officials have pointed to antibody testing as a critical tool to accomplish those goals. To that end, the administration on April 11 issued a document clarifying that most private health plans must cover such tests, which detect antibodies against the new coronavirus found in the blood of people who have been infected and now may be immune.

“It’s not exactly a surprise, [but] I don’t know that it was 100% expected,” Jason Karcher, a Milliman Inc. actuary, tells AIS Health regarding the requirement. “It seems like as much a point of clarification rather than a ‘hey, we’re going to require something totally out of the blue.'”

So far, at least serological tests have received an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA.

Cost information is not as readily available for serological tests as it is for tests that diagnose COVID-19, which cost around $51 until CMS increased the reimbursement rate for “high-throughput” diagnostic tests to $100. Cellex, which makes one of the antibody tests that received emergency authorization by the FDA, did not respond to an inquiry about the price of its test as of press time, but Vox reported that “a serological test can be less than $10.”

William Schaffner, M.D., a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, says there are good reasons to temper expectations about how testing people for COVID-19 antibodies could help the U.S. reopen businesses, schools and events.

Since the FDA is essentially allowing companies to do their own evaluation of serological tests’ effectiveness, that will naturally invite questions about whether their results can be trusted, Schaffner says, suggesting that some tests may be more rigorously evaluated than others. “Then there’s the question of availability of the tests — we’ve been down this road once before, where people were told that the nasal swab test for the virus itself would be widely available, and anybody can have it who wants it,” he says. “Well, we’re still struggling with that, and we would like not to repeat that fiasco.”

Perspectives on ACA and Medicaid Enrollment Growth Amid COVID-19

April 30, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up to be a stress-test for the post-Affordable Care Act insurance market. The crisis has already caused mass layoffs, and experts say the individual health insurance exchanges and Medicaid could see record enrollment in the coming months as a result, AIS Health reported.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up to be a stress-test for the post-Affordable Care Act insurance market. The crisis has already caused mass layoffs, and experts say the individual health insurance exchanges and Medicaid could see record enrollment in the coming months as a result, AIS Health reported.

“This would be the first recession since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, so we are in somewhat uncharted territory in terms of what might happen in a recession under both the ACA marketplace and the Medicaid expansion,” Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said during a March 18 conference call with reporters.

Levitt said the ACA marketplace is likely to see rapid growth in enrollment as workers lose jobs or hours, making them eligible for special enrollment periods in some cases.

“Household income is going to tend to fall, and that will put more people into that lowest income category with the broadest enrollment in the ACA marketplace,” Levitt said. That influx of enrollees, he added, “has the potential to improve the risk pool in the ACA marketplace and shouldn’t, by itself, have a big effect on premiums.”

Meanwhile, “as people lose their jobs and their incomes fall below 138% of poverty in those states that have expanded Medicaid, we’re likely to see growth in Medicaid enrollment — as we typically do during recessions,” Levitt said.

“Medicaid traditionally has been countercyclical….It’s an economic balancer,” says David Anderson, a health policy researcher at Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy. “In 2009 [during the last economic recession], the federal government raised the federal payment rate — the federal share of Medicaid — by 6.2 points. What that did is it gave states breathing room in their budget…That extra federal share takes a little bit of pressure off the rest of the state budget.”

To that end, President Donald Trump on March 18 signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which, among a host of other provisions, temporarily increased the Medicaid federal medical assistance percentage by 6.2 points.