Breakthrough therapies are breaking patients' banks. Key changes could improve access, experts say.
CSL Behring’s new gene therapy for hemophilia, Hemgenix, costs $3.5 million for one treatment, but helps the body create substances that allow blood to clot. It appears to be a cure, eliminating the need for other treatments for many years at least.
Likewise, Novartis’s Kymriah mobilizes the body’s immune system to fight B-cell lymphoma, but at a cost $475,000. For patients who respond, it seems to offer years of life without the cancer progressing.
These single-treatment therapies are at the forefront of a new, bold era of medicine. Unfortunately, they also come with new, bold prices that leave insurers and patients wondering whether they can afford treatment and, if they can, whether the high costs are worthwhile.
“Most pharmaceutical leaders are there to improve and save people’s lives,” says Jeremy Levin, chairman and CEO of Ovid Therapeutics, and immediate past chairman of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. If the therapeutics they develop are too expensive for payers to authorize, patients aren’t helped.
“The right to receive care and the right of pharmaceuticals developers to profit should never be at odds,” Levin stresses. And yet, sometimes they are.
Leigh Turner, executive director of the bioethics program, University of California, Irvine, notes this same tension between drug developers that are “seeking to maximize profits by charging as much as the market will bear for cell and gene therapy products and other medical interventions, and payers trying to control costs while also attempting to provide access to medical products with promising safety and efficacy profiles.”
Why Payers Balk
Health insurers can become skittish around extremely high prices, yet these therapies often accompany significant overall savings. For perspective, the estimated annual treatment cost for hemophilia exceeds $300,000. With Hemgenix, payers would break even after about 12 years.
But, in 12 years, will the patient still have that insurer? Therein lies the rub. U.S. payers, are used to a “pay-as-you-go” model, in which the lifetime costs of therapies typically are shared by multiple payers over many years, as patients change jobs. Single treatment therapeutics eliminate that cost-sharing ability.
"As long as formularies are based on profits to middlemen…Americans’ healthcare costs will continue to skyrocket,” says Patricia Goldsmith, the CEO of CancerCare.
“There is a phenomenally complex, bureaucratic reimbursement system that has grown, layer upon layer, during several decades,” Levin says. As medicine has innovated, payment systems haven’t kept up.
Therefore, biopharma companies begin working with insurance companies and their pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), which act on an insurer’s behalf to decide which drugs to cover and by how much, early in the drug approval process. Their goal is to make sophisticated new drugs available while still earning a return on their investment.
New Payment Models
Pay-for-performance is one increasingly popular strategy, Turner says. “These models typically link payments to evidence generation and clinically significant outcomes.”
A biotech company called bluebird bio, for example, offers value-based pricing for Zynteglo, a $2.8 million possible cure for the rare blood disorder known as beta thalassaemia. It generally eliminates patients’ need for blood transfusions. The company is so sure it works that it will refund 80 percent of the cost of the therapy if patients need blood transfusions related to that condition within five years of being treated with Zynteglo.
In his February 2023 State of the Union speech, President Biden proposed three pilot programs to reduce drug costs. One of them, the Cell and Gene Therapy Access Model calls on the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to establish outcomes-based agreements with manufacturers for certain cell and gene therapies.
A mortgage-style payment system is another, albeit rare, approach. Amortized payments spread the cost of treatments over decades, and let people change employers without losing their healthcare benefits.
Only about 14 percent of all drugs that enter clinical trials are approved by the FDA. Pharma companies, therefore, have an exigent need to earn a profit.
The new payment models that are being discussed aren’t solutions to high prices, says Bill Kramer, senior advisor for health policy at Purchaser Business Group on Health (PBGH), a nonprofit that seeks to lower health care costs. He points out that innovative pricing models, although well-intended, may distract from the real problem of high prices. They are attempts to “soften the blow. The best thing would be to charge a reasonable price to begin with,” he says.
Instead, he proposes making better use of research on cost and clinical effectiveness. The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) conducts such research in the U.S., determining whether the benefits of specific drugs justify their proposed prices. ICER is an independent non-profit research institute. Its reports typically assess the degrees of improvement new therapies offer and suggest prices that would reflect that. “Publicizing that data is very important,” Kramer says. “Their results aren’t used to the extent they could and should be.” Pharmaceutical companies tend to price their therapies higher than ICER’s recommendations.
Drug Development Costs Soar
Drug developers have long pointed to the onerous costs of drug development as a reason for high prices.
A 2020 study found the average cost to bring a drug to market exceeded $1.1 billion, while other studies have estimated overall costs as high as $2.6 billion. The development timeframe is about 10 years. That’s because modern therapeutics target precise mechanisms to create better outcomes, but also have high failure rates. Only about 14 percent of all drugs that enter clinical trials are approved by the FDA. Pharma companies, therefore, have an exigent need to earn a profit.
Skewed Incentives Increase Costs
Pricing isn’t solely at the discretion of pharma companies, though. “What patients end up paying has much more to do with their PBMs than the actual price of the drug,” Patricia Goldsmith, CEO, CancerCare, says. Transparency is vital.
PBMs control patients’ access to therapies at three levels, through price negotiations, pricing tiers and pharmacy management.
When negotiating with drug manufacturers, Goldsmith says, “PBMs exchange a preferred spot on a formulary (the insurer’s or healthcare provider’s list of acceptable drugs) for cash-base rebates.” Unfortunately, 25 percent of the time, those rebates are not passed to insurers, according to the PBGH report.
Then, PBMs use pricing tiers to steer patients and physicians to certain drugs. For example, Kramer says, “Sometimes PBMs put a high-cost brand name drug in a preferred tier and a lower-cost competitor in a less preferred, higher-cost tier.” As the PBGH report elaborates, “(PBMs) are incentivized to include the highest-priced drugs…since both manufacturing rebates, as well as the administrative fees they charge…are calculated as a percentage of the drug’s price.
Finally, by steering patients to certain pharmacies, PBMs coordinate patients’ access to treatments, control patients’ out-of-pocket costs and receive management fees from the pharmacies.
Therefore, Goldsmith says, “As long as formularies are based on profits to middlemen…Americans’ healthcare costs will continue to skyrocket.”
Transparency into drug pricing will help curb costs, as will new payment strategies. What will make the most impact, however, may well be the development of a new reimbursement system designed to handle dramatic, breakthrough drugs. As Kramer says, “We need a better system to identify drugs that offer dramatic improvements in clinical care.”
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.