Drug Channels delivers timely analysis and provocative opinions on pharmaceutical economics and the drug distribution system. It is written by Adam J. Fein, Ph.D., one of the country's foremost experts on pharmaceutical economics and channel strategy. Drug Channels reaches an engaged, loyal and growing audience of more than 20,000 subscribers. Learn more...

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Download My New Pharmacy Industry Report

I am pleased to announce the release of my new downloadable report U.S. Pharmacy Industry: 2009 Economic Report and Outlook. Here’s the Dow Jones story: Report: US Pharmacy Revenues To Surpass $350 Billion By 2015.

I’m really proud of the report and think you’ll find it to be a valuable planning tool. I want to tell you a bit about the content and give blog readers a sneak peek at the seven major trends.

I also want to offer something special for you, my blog readers. I will randomly select 5 of first 25 Corporate License purchasers for a confidential 60 minute conference call with me to review the report with your team.

Friday, September 25, 2009

AWP Goes Boom

Tomorrow’s the day that First DataBank’s Average Wholesale Price (AWP) goes boom. See What Happens When AWP Goes Boom for background.

My view is that there's not going to be much of a difference after Sept. 26. As I see it, the net impact on total U.S. drug spending will be relatively small and certainly far below the initial multibillion-dollar predictions from a few years ago.

The Medicaid issue is more complex, but not fatal. So far, New Jersey has already announced a reimbursement change that will partly neutralize the impact. (See this NACDS press release.)

And as for the future of AWP? I'm still skeptical that this benchmark will survive too much longer.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wal-Mart Explains Its Healthcare Strategy

The latest issue of Health Affairs has a fascinating insider’s view on how Wal-Mart views healthcare services (including pharmacy dispensing). Read it here: Removing Costs From The Health Care Supply Chain: Lessons From Mass Retail

The article's subtitle says it all: “Many standard health care products and services should be ‘commoditized’—and priced accordingly.”

Translation: Pharmacies should be ready to compete on price, not just customer satisfaction.

It’s important to understand Wal-Mart's message although I doubt many pharmacy owners (and even some PBM executives) will agree with it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

PBM Consolidation Ahead (redux)

In early June, I laid out the five reasons why I expect PBM Consolidation Ahead.

The prospects for more consolidation seem even higher now, especially in light of recent news about CVS Caremark (CVS) and Medco Health Solutions (MHS). I also think that health care reform will end up being a net positive for the PBM industry, increasing the need for more scale.

I estimate that the big three PBMs – CVS Caremark (Pharmacy Services), Express Scripts, and Medco Health Solutions – will process about 45% of all prescriptions filled in a retail drug store in 2009. I would not be surprised if that figure hits 60% by 2014.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Pharmacists Can't Get No Satisfaction from Mail

Hot on the heels of Walmart’s mail pharmacy announcement, the National Association of Community Pharmacists (NCPA) issued a statement highlighting the purported dangers of using any type of mail pharmacy: Despite Wal-Mart's Assertion, New Mail Order Program Will Not Benefit Patients.

But at the risk of further annoying the irate independent pharmacists who post comments on this blog, I regret to inform you (and NCPA) that the facts do not show mail pharmacy to be an inconvenient, patient-killing scam.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Baucus Bill: Weighted AMP+75%

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus officially released the text of a massive health care reform bill. Read the full text of the Baucus plan – 223 pages of wonky goodness.

The “Changes to Medicaid Payment for Prescription Drugs” (page 55) sets the Federal Upper Limit (FUL) to the weighted Average Manufacturer Price (WAMP?) x 175%, i.e., WAMP+75%.

Quick reaction: While 175% is less than 250%, I expect WAMP to be greater than AMP, especially since the proposal excludes mail order pharmacies. Seems like a victory for the pharmacy groups that lobbied for an increase, although I predict they will still ask for more.

The Impact of Walmart's National Mail Pharmacy

Walmart just went national with its mail pharmacy program, an outcome that I had predicted in May when the company launched its initial trial in Michigan. Details here: Walmart Expands Access to Affordable Prescriptions Nationwide. Walmart is offering 300 generic prescriptions for $10 each and more than 3,000 other brand and generic prescriptions with free mail delivery.

This announcement expands the retail pharmacy price war over generic drugs, puts further pressure on pharmacy margins from cash-pay customers, and sets the stage for more cost-plus deals. More intriguingly, it portends an emerging strategic convergence between Walmart and CVS Caremark. Yes, you read that correctly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pharmacies Sued for Making Money on Generic Drugs

Here’s an unusual case that I haven't seen reported anywhere else.

Two small health plans in Minnesota are suing pharmacies for making higher profits on generic drugs than on brand name drugs. Perhaps the attorneys went to the Lake Wobegon School for Pharmacy Management. (“All the pharmacists are strong, all the technicians are good-looking, and all the profits are above average.”)

While I have no idea whether the legal claims have any merit, the case again highlights the risks to the superior profitability of generic drugs for pharmacies and Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs).

Friday, September 11, 2009

Two Great New Resources on Pharmacy Economics

Last August was not just a time for rioting about health care reform in a town hall meeting. It was also the month in which two great new resources on pharmacy economics were released.

Sure, the release of these reports was perhaps not comparable to the excitement surrounding Wednesday's release of The Beatles: Rock Band. Nevertheless, this self-confessed pharmacy economics geek (but in a good way!) suggests you check out both reports.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What Happens When AWP Goes Boom?

Enough about Obamacare -- let's talk about something closer to home.

In just 12 days, the Great 4% AWP Rollback begins. From what I hear, many pharmacies, PBMs, and health plans are adopting (or are negotiating) contractual “equivalency formulas” that will maintain constant dollar reimbursements to pharmacies. So I'll offer you a few thoughts on the post-September 26 situation.

Medicaid is another story and will likely mean real cuts. Unfortunately, this episode shows that it’s never too late to exaggerate the impact of a reimbursement cut.

THE LONG GOODBYE

I'm sure almost everyone is familiar with the circumstances here, but if not, read Farewell, AWP.

Briefly, the settlement of the New England Carpenters Health Benefits Fund, et al., v. First DataBank, Inc. and McKesson Corporation case requires First DataBank (FDB) to reduce the AWP mark-up from 1.25 to 1.20 times the Wholesale Acquisition Cost (WAC) for approximately 1,400 NDCs identified in the litigation.

Although the settlement doesn't require it, FDB plans to set the mark-up at 1.20 for all drugs independent of the litigation on September 26, 2009. This roll back of the WAC-to-AWP spread translates mathematically into a 4% reduction in their AWP.

FDB also intends to stop publishing AWP data no later than two years following the date that the rollback adjustments are implemented, i.e., no later than September 26, 2011. First DataBank has stated that it will continue to publish non-AWP drug pricing information, including WAC, Direct Price, and suggested wholesale price. Visit http://www.firstdatabank.com/Support/awp-communications.aspx for more details.

Since payers still widely use AWP as a drug reimbursement benchmark for pharmacies, the settlement affects the economics of providers that were not directly involved in the lawsuit or settlement. Many pharmacy groups have been strenuously objecting to the settlement. In June 2009, NACDS and FMI filed another legal brief challenging the settlements that reduce AWPs. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the settlement, paving the way for the 4% rollback will occur on September 26.

BTW, there’s still some dispute about how much pharmacies have benefited from the initial mark-up change back in 2002. Judge Saris was withering in her March decision, writing that “[T]hese pharmacies … were unjustly enriched when drug prices were fraudulently inflated during the scheme, yet they have not been asked to disgorge their profits.” (See Farewell, AWP.) Many pharmacists disagree with this statement, although I have not seen any hard evidence one way or the other.

WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN AFTER SEPTEMBER 26?

Here are a few thoughts on the near-term outcomes.
  • The market will adapt and pharmacies will be OK. Despite any alleged “enrichment,” many participants in the private market seem to be recomputing so that there will be a limited impact on pharmacies. This should not be news to anyone. Don’t believe me? Then take the wayback machine to my October 2006 post Additional Comments on the AWP settlement, when CVS (among others) seemed confident of its ability to renegotiate. At the time, the plaintiff’s expert argued that market participants would *not* be able to renegotiate, although that view now seems incorrect.

  • AWP is not dead yet. AWP continues to be the most widely used benchmark for brand drug reimbursement. I presume that other publishers will step in to fill the gap left by First DataBank and Medi-Span. Thomson Reuters, which publishes the Redbook, already uses a 1.20 WAC-to-AWP mark-up in their AWP Policy. A source there told me that Thomson Reuters has no plans to change the methodology or stop publishing AWP.

  • We’ll always have WAC. Some public payers have already begun to shift to the alternative list price benchmark of WAC, such as the Department of Defense (Big WAC Attack). Nine state Medicaid programs already incorporate WAC into the ingredient cost reimbursement formula. Of course, WAC doesn’t necessarily represent the price paid by any entity within the distribution system either, so shifting to WAC just kicks the can down the road.

  • We still need a credible alternative. Personally, I think that dissatisfaction with list-price benchmarks will ultimately lead to reimbursement models based on actual transactional pricing data, such as the Caterpillar-Walgreens agreement. However, there is not yet a viable published “average price” available for payers to use in computations. Stay tuned for more on this topic.
WOULD YOU BELIEVE …. ?

Now we come at last to Medicaid, which consistently provides the most generous reimbursements to retail pharmacies for generic drugs. See this February 2009 OIG report or Pharmacy Profits and Wal-Mart for some evidence. (Hey, I don't make this stuff up.)

The government doesn’t move quite as fast as the private sector, so there’s little time to adjust the various state Medicaid prescription reimbursement methods. Also, states aren’t particularly motivated to act quickly given the potential budget savings.

How much is at risk? Well, I guess that depends on how close we get to the deadline.
  • At the August NACDS meeting, NACDS Senior Vice President and General Counsel Don L. Bell II estimated a $68 million reduction per year from Medicaid. (See page 3 of his presentation.)

  • In a letter this week to CMS head honcho Kathleen Sebelius, NCPA and NACDS cite a “conservatively-estimated loss of more than $350 million each year.” (See page 2 of their letter.)
Gosh, one month makes a big difference, doesn’t it? Good thing that it's only taxpayer's (our) money, right?

Regardless of whether CMS reacts, I hope that the OIG looks into whether pharmacies gained from the initial 2002 increase or would have lost (or did lose) from the 2009 rollback. Facts never hurt anyone.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

CAT + WAG = More Momentum for Cost Plus

What is Caterpillar smokin’? It must be strong because the company is trying hard to transform the economic reality of the pharmacy industry.

Two weeks ago, Walgreens announced a direct-to-payer agreement with Caterpillar that would use a cost-plus pricing model for prescriptions filled at Walgreens’ pharmacies starting in January 2010. See Walgreen to Provide Prescription Drugs for Caterpillar Workers.

This deal provides further momentum for cost-plus pharmacy reimbursement. Maybe the industry is falling down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world…or maybe the future is arriving sooner than expected. Here’s my take on what direct-to-payer, cost-plus deals could mean for drug channels along with some cautionary words on the longer-term impact.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Drug Channels XR: New and Improved!

Welcome back! Drug Channels is now back in session.

As you can see, I spent time over the summer fixin' up the joint. In the spirit of the pharmaceutical industry, let's call it Drug Channels XR – a new formulation that will keep you away from those pesky copycats.

Here's a quick rundown on some new features, coming attractions, and an explanation of why I won't be twittering (or tweeting) anytime soon.

A QUICK TOUR

I have redesigned and updated the entire Drug Channels site. All of the content is still here, but you should find it much easier to access and share everything. Notable new features:

  1. Two Sidebars = Twice the fun!

  2. Social media: The button at the bottom of each post will allow you to easily email any article or post it to your favorite social networking site (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, et al). I hope you find my posts worthy of sharing.

  3. LinkedIn? Yup, I've jumped on the bandwagon and have an account at http://www.linkedin.com/in/adamjfein. I accept almost all invitations, so please feel free to connect with me.

  4. Print this Post: When online just isn't good enough, you can now efficiently deforest the planet (but now with better formatting).

  5. Improved search: DC now has an integrated Google blog search engine, which is much faster and more comprehensive than the old search feature.

I've tested the site with multiple browsers and operating systems, but please let me know if you encounter any problems using the new site.

COMING ATTRACTIONS

Despite what you might believe about my glamorous life as a surfer, I was actually working all summer. I'll hit a few developments from summer 2009 in upcoming posts. You may find this summary list to be a helpful guide:

  • Inglourious Basterds (An update on the rational, reasonable health care reform debate)

  • The Hurt Locker (Defusing the AWP time bomb)

  • Star Trek (Walgreens boldly goes into a cost-plus deal)
  • Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (Pharmacies push anti-PBM legislation)

  • District 9 (Relocating that pesky AMP problem)

  • The Hangover (Huh? How did I get here? Walmart is doing what?!?)

  • Julie & Julia (Cooking up some online counterfeit drug fun)

The number one most requested item from my April reader survey (91% of respondents) was "A downloadable report written by Dr. Fein on future trends for the retail pharmacy industry." As you wish! Stay tuned for the official announcement in a few weeks.

WHAT, NO TWITTER?

So far, I have resisted the siren chirp of this new platform, especially when I learned that MC Hammer has 1.4 million followers. (Really.) I'm not opposed to it, I'm just too darn busy to be interrupting you (and me) all the time. (Insert "MC Hammer must have time on his hands" joke here.)

Nevertheless, you can follow me http://www.twitter.com/adamjfein, although I have not tweeted yet. Maybe I never will. (UPDATE: You can now follow the blog at http://www.twitter.com/DrugChannels.)

In the meantime, please enjoy this very revealing interview of Twitter co-founder Biz Stone by pundit Stephen Colbert. A familiar business strategy for pharma?

Stone: "It's the messaging service we didn't know we needed until we had it."

Colbert: "That sounds like the answer to a problem that we didn't have until I invented the answer."


FYI, I monitor the twitterverse using a clever little application called TweetDeck. Caveat tweetor.