Putting the Brakes on Skyrocketing Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 25, 2019

A few days ago, AARP Rhode Island released new state specific data detailing the impact of high prescription drug prices for Ocean State residents, specifically those living with cancer, prediabetes or diabetes, and heart disease. The Washington-based AARP unveiled the infographic at the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) annual conference as part of AARP’s nationwide Stop Rx Greed campaign to lower drug prices for all Americans.

“While prescription drug prices continue skyrocketing, Americans are being forced to choose between filling life-saving medications or paying rent and buying food,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell in an August 21 statement announcing the release of the drug cost data. “So far in 2019, 29 states have passed 46 new laws to rein in drug prices. It’s critical that state and federal lawmakers continue this momentum to stop Rx greed.” says Connell.

Across the nation, 28 percent of consumers ages 19 to 64, say they are being forced to choose between filling costly life-saving prescriptions and paying their rent, buying food and affording other critical essentials, according to AARP research. In 2016, 25 percent of Rhode Islanders stopped taking a prescription drug prescribed by their health care provider due to cost.

The AARP Rhode Island-specific Infographic zeros in on three commonly used prescriptions to treat cancer, diabetes and heart disease to detail the spiraling increases in drug costs.

Between 2012 and 2017, the retail price of Revlimid, used to treat cancer, increased from $147,413 per year to $247,496 per year. In Rhode Island, 112,403 people are living with cancer.

Lantus, a form of insulin used to treat diabetes, increased from $2,907 per year to $4,702 per year. There are 82,318 people with diabetes in Rhode Island.

Finally, Aggrenox, a heart disease medication, increased from $3,030 per year to $5,930 per year. In Rhode Island, 31, 756 people have heart disease.

Specialty Drug Prices Continue 12-Year Surge

The AARP-state specific infographic released this month follows on the heels of an earlier AARP Public Policy Institute report released in June, reporting that the prices of widely used specialty prescription drugs grew more than three times faster than general inflation in 2017.

The researchers found that the average annual price for a single specialty drug used on a chronic basis is now nearly $79,000, compared to $27,824 in 2006.

Specialty drugs often require special administration and handling and are used to treat conditions that often affect older populations, including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.

According to the findings of the AARP report, the average annual cost for a single specialty drug was almost $20,000 more than the median U.S. household income ($60,336), more than three times the median income for beneficiaries ($26,200, and over four-and-a-half times higher than the average Social Security retirement benefit ($26,200).

The report also found that the average annual p rice for one specialty medication would have been $29,843 in 2017 – almost $50,000 lower – if the retail price changes for these products had been limited to general inflation between 2006 and 2017.

“Prescription drugs are not affordable when their prices exceed the patient’s entire income,” said Debra Whitman, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer. Unfortunately, drug prices seem to be in a never-ending race to the top, leaving more and more people unable to afford the medications they need,” she says.

The researchers also noted that revlimid, used to treat cancer, had the highest annual price surge of the 30 top selling specialty drugs at 21.4 percent, going from $203,928 in 2016 to $247,497 in 2017. Revatio, a pulmonary hypertension medication, had the single highest retail price increase (48 percent) among the 97 most widely used specialty drugs.

“Specialty drugs account for the majority of the prescription drugs that were approved by the FDA in recent years,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Research at AARP Policy Institute. “Given the remarkably high prices associated with such products, it is imperative that policymakers finally enact meaningful changes that target drug manufacturers’ pricing behavior,” she said.

Putting the Brakes to Skyrocketing Drug Costs

Last March, AARP launched its ‘Stop Rx Greed Campaign’ to find Federal and State solutions to slash skyrocketing drug prices. The goal of AARP’s sustained campaign is to help drive down drug prices for all Americans by advocating for a variety of legislative, executive, and regulatory actions at both the federal and state level.

“Americans are paying the highest prescription drug prices in the world,” said Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond, in a statement kicking off this advocacy initiative. “It’s time for pharmaceutical companies to stop deflecting blame and acknowledge that the root cause is the price they set for their products,” she says.

The Stop Rx Greed campaign will include national television, radio and digital ads, editorial content, emails to members, social media posts, ongoing advocacy and grassroots activity in D.C. and the states, and a petition calling on Congress and the Administration to take action now.

As part of the campaign, AARP is actively supporting a number of policy solutions at the national and state level to help lower drug prices. The aging advocacy group supports allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices and states to negotiate lower prices with drug companies. AARP also calls for giving state Attorneys General authority to crack down on outrageous price increases and clamping down on pay-for-delay and other loopholes that keep
lower cost generic drugs off the market. Finally, AARP endorses capping prescription drug out-of-pocket costs and preserving state pharmacy assistance programs.

Congress is now considering legislation to put the brakes on rising pharmaceutical calls. As the 2020 election approaches the GOP-controlled Senate must work across the aisle with Senate Democrats to craft and pass bipartisan legislation to lower drug costs. It’s time for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who vows to block any Democratic priories coming out of the Democratic-controlled Houses to the Senate, to put Senate companion bills on the floor for a vote. It’s time for the Kentucky Senator to put the needs of older Americans first, rather than political wins.

For more details about AARP’s Stop Rx Greed initiative, go to http://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/prescription-drugs/.

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Study Calls for Action on Creating Senior Housing for Middle-Income Seniors

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 18, 2019

A recently released report sends a stark warning to federal and state policy makers and to the private senior housing sector. The report forewarns that in the coming years, a large number of middle-income seniors, who need assisted living with supportive services, will be priced out of this level of care.

Seniors housing in the United States is paid out of pocket by seniors with sufficient assets. A relatively small percentage of Americans have long-term care insurance policies to defray the costs. For seniors with the lowest incomes, Medicaid covers housing only in the skilled nursing setting, but increasingly also covers long-term services and supports in home and community-based settings. Programs such as low-income housing tax credits have helped finance housing for economically-disadvantaged seniors.

The researchers call on the government and the senior housing sector to step up and to assist the projected 14.4 million middle-income people over age 75, many with multiple chronic conditions, who won’t be able to afford pricey senior housing.

According to this first-of-its-kind study that appears in the April 24 2019 edition of Health Affairs, 54 percent of middle-income older Americans will not be able to meet yearly costs of $60,000 for assisted living rent and other out-of-pocket medical costs a decade from now, even if they generated equity by selling their home and committing all of their annual financial resources. The figure skyrockets, to 81 percent, if middle-income seniors in 2019 were to keep the assets they built in their home but commit the reset of their annual financial resources to cover costs associated with seniors housing and care.

Accompanying the senior housing study are two perspective pieces in Health Affairs on how society can adapt to aging and supporting aging in communities.

The study, “The Forgotten Middle: Many Middle-Income Seniors Will Have Insufficient Resources For Housing And Health Care, was conducted by researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago, with funding provided by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), with additional support from AARP, the AARP Foundation, the John A. Hartford Foundation, and The SCAN Foundation.

Learning About the Needs of the Emerging ‘Middle Market’

“We still have a lot to learn about what the emerging ‘middle market’ wants from housing and personal care, but we know they don’t want to be forced to spend down into poverty, and we know that America cannot currently meet their needs,” said Bob Kramer, NIC’s founder and strategic adviser in a April 24, 2019, statement. “The future requires developing affordable housing and care options for middle-income seniors. This is a wake-up call to policymakers, real estate operators and investors,” he adds.

The report notes that significant financial challenges are expected to coincide with many middle-income seniors seeking seniors housing and care properties due to deteriorating health and other factors, such as whether a family member can serve as a caregiver. The study projects that by 2029, 60 percent of U.S. middle-income seniors over age 75 will have mobility limitations (8.7 million people), 67 percent will have three or more chronic conditions (9.6 million people), and 8 percent will have cognitive impairment (1.2 million people). For middle-income seniors age 85 and older, the prevalence of cognitive impairment nearly doubles.

The researchers say that this ‘middle market’ for seniors housing and care in 2029 will be more racially diverse, have higher educational attainment and income, and smaller families to recruit as unpaid caregivers than today’s seniors. Over the next 10 years, growth in the number of women will outpace men, with women comprising 58 percent of seniors 75 years old or older in 2029, compared to 56 percent in 2014, they say.

Bringing the Public and Private Sector Together

“In only a decade, the number of middle-income seniors will double, and most will not have the savings needed to meet their housing and personal care needs,” said Caroline Pearson, senior vice president at NORC at the University of Chicago and one of the study’s lead authors.

“Policymakers and the seniors housing community have a tremendous opportunity to develop solutions that benefit millions of middle-income people for years to come,” says Pearson.

Researchers say there is an opportunity for policymakers and the seniors housing and care sector to create an entirely new housing and care market for an emerging cohort of middle-income seniors not eligible for Medicaid and not able to pay for housing out of pocket in 2029.

The study’s analysis suggests that creating a new ‘middle market’ for seniors housing and care services will require innovations from the public and private sectors. Researchers say the private sectors can offer more basic housing products, better leverage technology, subsidize ‘middle-market’ residents with higher-paying residents, more robustly engage unpaid caregivers, and develop innovative real estate financing models, among other options.

As to the public sector, the researchers call on government to create incentives to build a robust new market for middle-income seniors by offering tax incentives targeted to the ‘middle market,’ expanding subsidy and voucher programs, expanding Medicare coverage of nonmedical services and supports, creating a Medicare benefit to cover long-term care, and broadening Medicaid’s coverage of home and community-based services.

“This research sets the stage for needed discussions about how the nation will care for seniors who don’t qualify for Medicaid but won’t be able to afford seniors housing,” said Brian Jurutka, NIC’s president and chief executive officer. “This discussion needs to include investors, care providers, policymakers, and developers working together to create a viable middle market for seniors housing and care,” he says.

Adds, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of AARP’s Foundation, “All seniors want to live in affordable, safe and supportive housing, and more than 19 million older adults are unable to do so. We must act now to implement innovative solutions – including robust aging-in-community efforts – to accommodate what is sure to be an increasing demand for housing that meets the needs of older adults.”

Is Rhode Island prepared to meet the senior housing needs of the state’s middle-income seniors in 2029? If not, the state’s federal delegation, lawmakers, state policy makers and the senior housing industry must begin to chip away at this looming policy issue.

To view the study, go to http://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2018.05233.

Nursing Home Care in the Spotlight

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 4, 2019

Following on the heels of its March 6 hearing, “Not Forgotten: Protecting Americans from Abuse and Neglect in Nursing Homes,” the Senate Finance Committee held its second nursing home hearing this year, “Promoting Elder Justice: A Call for Reform,” on July 23, in 215 Dirksen, to study proposed reforms to reduce neglect and abuse in the nation’s nursing homes and to put a spotlight on the need to reauthorize key provisions of the Elder Justice Act.

During the two hour and twenty-minute morning hearing, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) along 11 members of the Senate committee listened to the testimony of five panel witnesses.

In his opening statement, Grassley acknowledged that the work isn’t done yet to improving the care in the nation’s nursing homes and Congress must protect nursing home and assisted living residents and those in group living arrangements from harm. The Iowa Senator noted in the recently released U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report the federal agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, noted that while one-third of nursing home residents may experience harm while under the care of these facilities, in more than half of these cases, the harm was preventable.

Calls for Bipartisan Efforts to Improve Nursing Home Care

Grassley called on Congress to reauthorize programs, such as the Elder Justice Act, to put the brakes on the growing trend of elder an abuse fueled by social media.

Adds, Wyden, in his opening statement, there is now an opportunity for Congress to come together to hammer out bipartisan legislative reforms to fix the nation’s nursing home oversight efforts. He urged his fellow Senate committee members to work to reduce the instances of physical, sexual, mental and emotion abuse in nursing homes, that appears to be increasing. He also called for a redo to the federal nursing home rating system because it does not reflect the increased prevalence of abuse.

During the first panel, Megan H. Tucker, Senior Advisor for Legal Review, of the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), stated that abuse and neglect oftentimes are not properly identified, reported or even addressed. While most providers are delivering good care, Tucker warned that Health and Human Service safeguards are lacking.

Tucker testified that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should use data more effectively and close the gaps in their reporting process to ensure that abuse and neglect are identified and the deficiencies corrected.

Concluding the first panel, John E. Dicken, Director, Health Care, of the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), discussed a newly released GAO report, released at the hearing, that detailed a growing trend of abuse and neglect of residents. According to one GAO report findings, abuse deficiencies more than doubled between 2013 (430) and 2017 (875), with the greatest increase in actual harm and immediate jeopardy deficiencies, and that abuse is still under-reported, he said. The GAO report also expressed concern over “significant gaps” with CMS’s oversight.

Leading the second panel, Robert Blancato, Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, called on Congress to reauthorize, the Elder Justice Act. With elder abuse becoming a “national emergency,” he urged lawmakers to dedicate funding for Adult Protective Services at the local and state levels. Blancato also stressed the importance of strengthening the long-term care ombudsman program, continuing the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, authorizing an Advisory Board on Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation, and finally funding for elder abuse forensic centers.

President and CEO, Mark Parkinson, of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association (AHCA), representing nearly 10,000 of the 15,000 plus nursing homes in the country who provide care to nearly four million individuals each year, stated he was not at the hearing to defend poor care but to provide solutions to Congress to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Fixing the Problem

Parkinson testified that over the past seven years, facilities participating in AHCA’s quality initiative, have shown improvement in 18 of 24 quality measures. Specifically, there are less hospital readmissions, fewer antipsychotic medications being prescribed, staff are spending more time than ever before with residents and today’s nursing homes are more person-centered care today than ever before.

Parkinson called on lawmakers to improve employee background check systems, add patient satisfaction data to CMS’s nursing home rating system, address the severe staffing shortage and to adequate fund Medicaid.

Finally, Lori Smetanka, Executive Director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, ended the second panel discussions, by warning that more must be done to protect nursing home residents from abuse.

Smetanka urged Congress to take steps to enforce minimum requirements for sufficient staffing, establish standards and oversight for nursing home ownership and operations, prevent rollback of nursing home regulatory standards, increase the transparency of information and to strengthen and adequately fund elder justice provisions.

Now, with the Congress putting poor nursing home care on its policy radar screen, both Democratic and Republic congressional leadership must work closely together to come up with bipartisan solutions. Fix this problem once and for all.

Senate Finance Committee members — Senators Lankford, Stabenow, Daines, Menendez, Carper, Cardin, Warner, Casey, Brown, Cortez Masto, and Hassan – attended the July 23 hearing

To listen to this Senate Finance Committee hearing, go to http://www.c-span.org/video/?462733-1/finance.

For a copy of the GAO report, http://www.gao.gov/assets/710/700418.pdf.