REAL innovation in healthcare

What do these have in common?



Martin Shkreli


Answer – they are all on the leading edge of healthcare innovation.

More precisely, these examples show there’s no need to create really new products, develop new medicines, figure out how to keep people healthier longer, when you can just raise prices on your current product.  A lot.

Duexisis is just ibuprofen combined with an acid reducer, creating a brand medication that sells for about 50 times what it should.  Yep, you can just buy Advil and Pepcid instead of breaking your bank enriching Horizon Pharmaceuticals.

Valeant has made a business out of buying generic manufacturers and other pharma companies and jacking up the price of their medications, a practice that has earned the company the attention of the Department of Justice, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and the US House of Representatives.  Oh, its stock price has gotten hammered of late due to some of these issues.

Shkreli is the brilliant and totally tone-deaf former hedge fund exec who discovered it’s a lot easier to make billions by buying little-used drugs made by one company than raising the price by, oh, say 6000 percent.

Mylan makes Epi-pens, the life-saving devices used to prevent deadly allergic reactions. Altho late to the “let’s just increase the price by a gazillion dollars for our poorly designed device cuz people who need it HAVE to buy it” game, they’re making up time quickly. Mylan raised the price by 6 to 9 times recently, causing problems for paramedics, families with kids with deadly allergies while jacking up their profits.

There are many, many more examples, but you get the point.

For anyone looking to assign blame for our ludicrously high cost of health insurance and pathetically poor outcomes, there are plenty of convenient culprits; HMO executive salaries, mandated benefits under ACA, specialty physician income, device manufacturers, hospital inefficiency, stupid and counterproductive HHS regulations, legislators who bow before the PHARMA lobby, physicians who refuse to wash their hands.

But it all gets back to this – the US health care “system” is based on a capitalist ethos, one where the shareholder and profits are God.

These companies and people do this stuff for a very simple reason – because they can, and they are rewarded for doing so.  There’s no reason to spend millions innovating when you can make billions just by raising prices for your product or service.

What does this mean for you?

Reality sucks.

Help me understand…

How an investment firm can own a physician dispensing company and a work comp program administrator.

ABRY has acquired a controlling interest in NSM, an insurance program administrator focused on, among other things, selling work comp to smaller employers.

Yawn, right?

Not if you are one of NSM’s insurance companies or insureds.

ABRY – which now controls NSM, also owns Automated Healthcare Solutions, the physician dispensing “technology” company that makes big dollars by sucking dollars out of work comp carriers, employers, and taxpayers.

So, if you’re ABRY, what’s going thru your corporate mind? You know – better than perhaps anyone in the country – how lucrative the doc dispensing business is (that may be a key reason ABRY has held on to AHCS for 6 years, way longer than most investors hold on to companies).

And you know the dollars are coming (mostly) from workers’ comp – which means insurers, employers, taxpayers.  And you know that all credible research indicates physician dispensing increases medical and indemnity costs – plus the higher cost per pill inherent in the doc dispensing model.

Now you own a controlling interest in a company that – and this is importantadministers worker’s comp programs but does not insure those programs.

So help me understand why this is not inherently a conflict of interest. As an owner, ABRY makes money when AHCS makes money from workers’ comp payors, but does not lose money when a company it owns pays AHCS’ bills.

I reached out to ABRY’s Brent Stone and NSM CEO Geof Mckernan early this morning in an effort to get their perspectives.  Here’s what I asked Mr Mckernan:

Given that NSM’s insureds and carriers expect NSM to effectively manage their workers’ compensation programs, how does that square with the business model of AHCS, which is based on generating the highest possible fees for physician dispensed drugs?

There is a conflict of interest inherent in owning a company that manages workers’ comp claims and one that profits by generating the highest possible revenues from workers’ comp claims.  How will this be addressed by NSM?


  1. How will NSM work to mitigate the additional costs including extended disability duration and medical expenses inherent in physician dispensing?
  2. Will ABRY keep AHCS and NSM entirely separate from an investment management perspective?
  3. When conflicts arise between AHCS seeking reimbursement and NSM’s claims function (both internal and via YorkRSG), how will those conflicts be addressed?
  4. Given the well-documented problems inherent in physician dispensing, how will NSM assure it’s carriers and insureds it is taking all possible steps to mitigate those risks?

I’ll keep you posted if I hear anything…

and thanks to WorkCompCentral for the tip!

Opioids – the cost of the drug isn’t the problem.

Opioid Dependence Leads To ‘Tsunami’ Of Medical Services, Study Finds

That’s the headline for a study that you – dear reader – need to read.

Here’s why – “Medical services for people with opioid dependence diagnoses skyrocketed more than 3,000 percent between 2007 and 2014.”

And that’s for privately insured people.  Based on research covering 150 million insureds, the report indicates the problem is particularly severe for younger men (19 – 35 year olds in particular).

We’ve all hypersensitive to the societal and personal cost of opioids, the Fair Health research is proof positive that the dollar cost of the drug itself is the least of the cost issues; dependency is strongly associated with much higher utilization of drug testing, overdose treatment, office visits and (my assumption) higher usage of other drugs intended to address side effects of opioids.

What does this mean for you?

Three thousand percent means you can’t afford to NOT address opioid addiction and dependency.


Work comp drug spend is going down

On average payers’ drug spend dropped 6.5% from 2014 to 2015.

And the bigger payers saw bigger reductions, with several cutting spend by double digits.

Those are the results for 30 large and mid-sized work comp payers I surveyed for CompPharma’s annual Prescription Benefit Management in Workers’ Compensation Survey.  State funds, large and mid-sized insurers, TPAs, self-insured trusts, and very large employers all participated in this, the 13th annual Survey.

The big question is – why?

Before we jump into that, allow me to address a potential criticism of payers’ drug management efforts.  This reduction is NOT because payers want to prevent their patients from getting the care they need.  Rather, payers – and their PBM partners – are focusing on ensuring patients get the drugs they need quickly and with minimal hassle, while blocking potentially problematic drugs.

This effort has paid off in the near term in lower costs for employers and taxpayers, and will almost certainly result in quicker healing and return to functionality; patients who don’t get unnecessary opioids get better a lot faster than patients prescribed these dangerous and often-misused drugs.

The Survey report, which will be out in August, will have details.  At this point in our analysis, several drivers seem to be at play here.

By far the most significant is the depth and breadth of pharmacy clinical management programs now in place at most payers.  The vast majority of payers rely on their PBM partners for most clinical management functions, with responsibility delegated to PBMs for some/most/all functions including:

  • patient enrollment
  • formulary development and management
  • prior authorization
  • pharmacist review of claims
  • prescriber outreach and follow-up
  • peer review and interaction
  • reporting
  • high cost claim assessment and intervention

This is somewhat unique in the work comp medical management world.  Unlike surgery, hospitalization, and other service types, most payers have delegated pharmacy management to PBMs.  There are several reasons for this.

  • Unlike other medical services, pharmacy is highly automated, requiring a unique electronic communication capability and expertise to accept, approve, process, and pay for the service.
  • Few payers want to invest the funds and management resources necessary to effectively manage pharmacy.  With the continued focus on reducing administrative expenses, overhead is an evil word at most insurers, so outsourcing it just makes financial sense.
  • PBMs have a lot more knowledge about pharmacy management as this is their core business.  Insurers, TPAs, and state funds have many other priorities on their collective plate, priorities that most view as more central to their core business.  They are insurers and claims handlers, not pharmacists.

That said, a handful of large payers have internalized pharmacy management – hiring pharmacists and nurses, instituting workflows specific to drug authorization, focusing on long-term opioid users, and tightening up drug formularies and approval processes.  These entities are also seeing solid payback on that investment, with costs dropping by double digits for these big payers too.

A final point that bears consideration.

Work comp PBMs, most of which are members of CompPharma (I am president of CompPharma), are doing a really good job and thereby reducing their income and profits.

They do this because this is how they win additional business; their value proposition is to ensure patients get the right medications and don’t get the wrong ones.

What does this mean for you?

PBMs are getting it done.

Work comp pharmacy – different indeed

The US spent $322 billion on outpatient drugs in 2015 – an 8.1% increase over the year before. (subscription required)

Over the next decade, CMS expects drug spending increases to outpace overall health care inflation by a significant margin at an average annual jump of 6.7%.

Things look remarkably different in the work comp world.

I’ve been surveying workers’ comp payers (insurers, state funds, TPAs, and large employers) for 13 years and the latest data indicates most are seeing a year-over-year decrease in drug spend.  I haven’t finished aggregating the data and checking the details, but this year looks like a continuation of the decreasing drug cost trend we’ve seen over the last several years (past Surveys available here).

More than 2/3rds of payers surveyed reported a drop in drug costs in 2015, and those that saw increases usually cited unique situations as primary drivers for those increases. Conversely, payers with decreases generally attributed their success to the same factors:

  • a strong focus on clinical management 
  • particular attention paid to opioid usage
  • ongoing, concerted effort to drive generic utilization

One other key driver – payers that work closely with PBMs on a variety of programs – retail network penetration, high risk patient identification, peer review, and outlier-prescriber outreach are seeing significantly better results.

I would note that work comp PBMs are spending a lot of money and resources to cut their revenues.  [I am president of CompPharma, a consortium of worker’s comp PBMs]

While there’s no question work comp can learn a lot from group health and other payers, the remarkable success workers comp payers have had in reducing the utilization of opioids shows that Medicaid and group health could and should carefully study what we’ve been doing.

What does this mean for you?

We are making progress, and work comp PBMs are leading the way.


Purdue Knew.

According to an LATimes article, Purdue pharma knew about rampant diversion of Oxycontin for years, and never informed the DEA.  Instead, the giant, family-owned pharmaceutical manufacturer continued supplying huge quantities of its most powerful version of Oxy to pharmacies, racking up $31 billion in revenues in the process.

Sure, Purdue eventually informed officials – years after “the clinic was out of business and its leaders indicted.”

In the interim, just one physician, in one clinic, in just the first few months it was operational, prescribed 73,000 80 mg pills.

This from the LATimes:

A sales manager went to check out the clinic and the company launched an investigation. It eventually concluded that Lake Medical [the clinic] was working with a corrupt pharmacy in Huntington Park to obtain large quantities of OxyContin.

“Shouldn’t the DEA be contacted about this?” the sales manager, Michele Ringler, told company officials in a 2009 email. Later that evening, she added, “I feel very certain this is an organized drug ring…”

Purdue did not shut off the supply of highly addictive OxyContin and did not tell authorities what it knew about Lake Medical until several years later when the clinic was out of business and its leaders indicted.

By that time, 1.1 million pills had spilled into the hands of Armenian mobsters, the Crips gang and other criminals. [emphasis added]

LATimes reporters Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion, and Scott Glover have done a remarkable job chronicling the devastation wrought by the flood of Oxycontin into California, a flood that spread pills across the country and directly contributed to the 194,000 deaths from opioid painkillers since 1999.

According to the article, Purdue knew about this activity, delayed reporting it to officials for years, and kept supplying tens of thousands of these horribly addictive pills to pharmacies Purdue’s own representative was “very certain” involved an organized drug ring.

194,000 dead Americans.  $31 billion in revenues.  Millions of shattered families. A company owned by one of the richest families in America, a fortune built on creative ways to generate scripts – and on addiction and diversion.

Sometimes what passes for legitimate business in America horrifies me.

Where’s the class-action law suit?

Friday catch-up

A short but busy week; here’s a few “highlights”


Big jump in hiring – 287,000 new jobs last month. Even better, the jobless rate has stayed below 5 percent for the last nine months, AND hourly wages increased albeit by a marginal amount AND there are still 5.8 million unfilled jobs as of April.  Here’s one expert’s read:

“This report should ease any fears that a persistent slowdown or recession is coming soon in the U.S.,” said Dean Maki, chief economist at Point72 Asset Management. “The service sector is where the real strength is, with 256,000 hires, but the gains were widespread across sectors.”

But…real median household income is still below where it was ten years ago.

Off-label prescribing run wild

Fentanyl – now infamous for having killed Prince – is the subject of a devastating piece in the NYT detailing the arrest of two pharma marketers for allegedly “financially incentivizing” docs to prescribe Subsys, a fentanyl spray intended for breakthrough cancer pain.  According to Katie Thomas’ article, only 1 percent of Subsys scripts were from oncologists.

Suggestion – ask your PBM to tell you how many Subsys scripts you paid for, and what practitioners were writing them.  NDC codes here.  Thanks to Brian Grant MD of MCN for this one

How the pharma world works

From Drug Channels comes this easy-to-read flow chart showing the drug and dollar flows in the pharmacy market.  Boss Adam Fein is a must-follow for those interested in this business.

Hat Tip to WorkCompWire for the head’s up on the news that Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry just published their 2014 system report. A couple of not-obvious takeaways:

Medicare’s physician fee schedule is new and improved – a brief synopsis courtesy of HealthAffairs is here.  Couple of key points:

  • Until 2019, Medicare will give physicians a fee increase of 0.5 percent per year.
  • After 2019, there will be no additional fee increases; providers will have to pick one of two reimbursement methodologies

States adopting the MACRA (new acronym for the fee schedule) for workers’ comp are going to have to figure out what to do after 2019…

Enjoy the weekend – hope we get some rain.  Not used to drought in upstate NY…

You broke it, you own it.

A bill before the US House and Senate would have required physicians and pharmacists to check state databases before prescribing or dispensing opioids.

All available research shows this is the single most effective step to reduce opioid abuse and kill fewer people.

Now, thanks to “doctors and pharmacists groups”, that requirement has been stripped from the bill.  What’s left is some – but nowhere near enough – money for treatment and the hope that, against all evidence to the contrary, docs who are writing the scripts that are causing the opioid disaster will take the time to check the databases before they write the script.

Not going to happen.

I am sympathetic to the claim that mandatory Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) checking can be time-consuming. States have to do a better job of figuring out how to streamline the process while protecting patient confidentiality – and many have done so.  Moreover, the four states with mandatory PDMPs have figured it out, and it is working pretty well.

I am a whole lot less sympathetic to the argument that somehow a moment or two of a doctor’s or pharmacist’s time is too much to ask, for the simple reason that these medical professionals’ failure to properly prescribe and dispense opioids is the proximal cause of the opioid public health disaster.

Pretty much every independent research organization studying the issue has recommended mandatory PDMP checking.  Here’s one.

More bluntly, that behavior is killing people, and the lobbying to strip mandatory use of PDMPs shows that’s not that big a deal.

Kentucky, New York, Ohio, and Tennessee all mandate prescribers access PDMPs – and all have seen dramatic reductions in doctor shopping and opioid script volume.

There’s a wealth of supporting data here.  Briefly, here’s what mandatory PDMP use does.

  • after Ohio ER docs checked the PDMP, they changed their treatment plan for 41% of patients; 61% had fewer or no opioids prescribed, 39% had more.  And doctor shopping dropped by over 2/3.
  • In Tennessee, doctor shopping dropped by 50% and the volume of opioid scripts decreased by almost half a million scripts.
  • Kentucky doctor shopping was cut in half, 30% fewer patients received the “holy trinity” drug cocktail, and benzo and opioid scripts dropped significantly.
  • in New York, doctor shopping was cut by 90%, and treatment admissions rose by 20%.

After spending a fruitless hour searching the web for an actual policy statement or testimony regarding mandatory PDMP use by the AMA, my conclusion is the giant medical society wants it both ways.

They don’t want their members to have to check PDMPs, but they don’t want to be public about that opposition.

What does this mean for you?

Refusing to support mandatory PDMP is unconscionable.  At some point an enterprising class-action firm is going to figure out how to make a shipload of money off the intransigence of “doctors and pharmacists groups.”


Work comp pharmacy – early results of 2016 Survey

I’m up to my eyeballs in the 13th (!!) Annual Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Compensation; the response from payers willing to devote time to the project has been gratifying indeed.

Previous Survey reports are available here; note these are the Public versions; respondents get a much more detailed and comprehensive version.

A bit of background first.  I conduct these surveys telephonically, speaking to the individual at the insurer/self-insured employer/state fund/TPA/trust who is directly responsible for the pharmacy program. In addition to asking their opinions and views, we get data on a variety of key metrics including:

  • drug spend for 2015 and 2014
  • opioid spend for 2015
  • compound drug volume
  • generic fill and efficiency rates
  • mail order usage

A few early findings.

  1. Pharmacy continues to be seen as more important than other medical ost areas, primarily due to the “downstream” effects of opioids on claim duration, return to work, and related pharmacy spend.
  2. Most respondents are seeing a decline in drug spend.  This is a bit of a surprise, as national research suggests drug costs are going up.  A possible explanation is that (most of) these payers are pretty sophisticated, have been working diligently on pharmacy issues for years, and most (but certainly not all) have employed a variety of programs to reduce unnecessary use of potentially dangerous drugs.
  3. The percentage of spend that goes to opioids varies greatly, from around 21% to over 50%.  Some of this is due to regional or state differences, but much is not. Much more to dig into here.
  4. Mail order continues to be woefully under-used, with most respondents reporting penetration rates in the low single digits.  Argh.
  5. Compound drugs are seen as highly problematic and payers have a wide variety of programs/efforts/mechanisms in place to address compounds.

Much more to come; when the Survey Report is done I’ll post a link.

Enjoy the weekend!


What’s your state’s prescription opioid death rate?

Utah’s is 16 deaths per 100,000 residents.

New Hampshire? 18.2.

West Virginia leads at 24.7.

Rhode Island is well into the double digits at 14.2.

Texas is among the lowest at 2.5, as is Nebraska at 2.8.

For 2014, the national death count was almost 19,000.  You can check every state here.

19,000 people died from prescription drugs – pills that a doctor prescribed for a patient. Not heroin, not crystal meth, not Ecstasy.  Pills a drug company marketed, many of them supposedly “abuse-deterrent”. Pills a stockholder profited from.

I bring this to your attention, dear reader, because the news these days includes some signs that we’re making progress, that opioid scripts are down and things are improving.

They are NOT.

In fact, don’t be surprised if the death count in 2015 hits 22,000.  That’s just a number, but it’s a number built on dead sisters and brothers and cousins and best friends, dead moms and dads and kids and BFFs and girlfriends and hunting buddies.

What does this mean for you?

Please don’t relax one bit.  Keep the pressure on, keep the focus tight, keep demanding answers, and above all, be aware,