The first order of business for many Democrats is to simplify and centralize the Part D program. Pharmaceutical manufacturers
lobbied for the competitive approach to avoid creating a central Medicare formulary that would provide a coverage and cost
model for the broader healthcare market. Insurers thus have crafted plans with noticeable differences in formulary coverage,
copayments, and premiums. And although the resulting variation has expanded choices and contained outlays, the program has
also confused seniors and created disparities in beneficiary costs.
According to the Boston Consulting Group, allowing direct price negotiations by the HHS secretary could cut manufacturer revenues
by some $10 billion to $30 billion, depending on whether insurers and pharmacy benefit managers demand the same low prices
set by Medicare. But the real impact of direct government price negotiations is unclear. There isn't much room to negotiate
lower prices for drugs that have no therapeutic alternatives, or for products in classes where Medicare requires coverage
of all medicines. Manufacturers may be reluctant to accept a low price that would extend to the broader market, but it will
be difficult to resist selling a chronic care therapy to the huge Medicare population.
Another strategy for curbing Medicare drug outlays is to require manufacturers to pay rebates to CMS. This could start with
reimbursement for drugs provided to dual-eligible seniors enrolled in Part D plans, those low-income beneficiaries who previously
obtained drug coverage from state Medicaid plans. Switching these patients to Medicare drug benefits has reduced pharma Medicaid
rebates and raised manufacturer revenues. Congressional leaders would like to reverse that shift.
Imports and Generics
Democrats and Republicans alike have looked to reduce drug prices by making it easier to re-import drugs from other countries.
Obama offers the usual caveat that the medicines coming in must be safe and effective. But taking steps to ensure product
quality appears to limit potential savings. Several state and local drug import programs have been dropped because of high
costs and low consumer interest, and extending drug coverage to seniors has removed a large pool of customers for reimport
What may be more palatable for the new administration is to make generic drugs more readily available to patients and payers.
At the annual meeting of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association in September, Obama health policy adviser Dora Hughes said
that reducing barriers to generic drug use should be central to health reform efforts. Hughes voiced support for curbing reverse
payment agreements, and backed legislation that would allow FDA to approve generic versions of biologics. But she said that
the market exclusivity period for brand-name biotech therapies should be much shorter than the 14 years advocated by the biotechnology
Although the savings from many of these cost-cutting policies may be elusive, they are likely to gain support on Capitol Hill
and in the White House. Political leaders believe it's possible to ratchet down outlays to Big Pharma without undermining
R&D, and the prospect of saving some $60 billion in the process is too attractive to pass up.
With Democrats extending their control in both houses of Congress, pharma is bracing for additional regulatory measures that
may squeeze prices and operations even more. Industry anticipates bills to limit direct-to-consumer advertising and to require
greater transparency in sales and marketing activities. A top Congressional priority is to expand FDA oversight of imported
medical products and foods, a move that industry supports. But any FDA legislation will provide a vehicle for enacting additional
drug safety and marketing measures.
Jill Wechsler is Pharmaceutical Executive's Washington correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org