Pharma Policy Execution Gap Limits Access To Affordable Medicines?

“The cost of new drugs is putting increasing pressure on people in both rich and poor countries”- was eloquently expressed in an article, titled “Why do new medicines cost so much, and what can we do about it?”. This was published by “The Guardian” on April 09, 2018.

Almost synchronically, expressing concern on this issue, the World Health Organization (W.H.O) advised the world leaders ‘to take bold new approaches’ for increasing access to medicines for all. A UN high-level panel on ‘access to medicines’ spent almost a year deliberating over related issues. The panel members were from pharma companies, as well as civil society and academics. The final report coming in September, backed de-linkage of the costs of R&D from the eventual price of the drug. Notably, the author who is also the health editor of the above publication, feels that any positive outcome in this direction is unlikely to materialize soon.

The majority of big pharma constituents, with the possible exception of GSK, whose then chief executive Sir Andrew Witty was unenthusiastic about the UN report. Probably because, it supported governments’ right to invoke ‘a get-out’ from the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS agreement. This is to bypass drug patents and make cheaper versions of the respective generic equivalents, in the interests of public health, in accordance with the 2001 Doha declaration. However, the author is hopeful that, “as happened with AIDS, each new crisis over access to medicines – whether concerning a common liver disease or a rare cancer, and particularly over the antibiotics that are under threat and vital to all our lives – is likely to put pressure on companies to find ways to bring the costs of medicines down.”

Stakeholder pressure for increasing access to medicines continues. Even in smaller developed countries, such as Switzerland, a section of the public demands that “Swiss authorities must act to make lifesaving drugs more affordable by introducing compulsory licensing.” Or, one can now see reports saying,“Irish patients are being denied access to nine drugs that are widely available across Europe, largely, on cost grounds.”

Nevertheless, regardless of mounting pressure for drawing a reasonable symmetry between cost of, especially new drugs and their improved access to patients, ongoing status-quo continues. In this article, I shall dwell on this concern from the Indian perspective, focusing on an agonizingly stark implementation-gap related to the current Indian pharma pricing policy.

Under pressure, pharma now recognizes the need for affordable drugs:

Coming under intense pressure of patients and other stakeholders, even the largest trade association of Big Pharma has recently changed its stance on this issue, though clearly sharking any responsibility for the same. It just recognized the need for affordable medicines for improved patient access to treatments by saying: “Too often patients have to fight to access breakthrough medicines that are revolutionizing how we fight disease.” It also accepted the fact that “many Americans are struggling to afford their medicines.”

“We can improve patient access and affordability by moving toward a system that prioritizes results for patients. Biopharmaceutical companies are working with insurers to develop innovative and flexible ways to pay for medicines that focus on results, lower out-of-pocket costs and enable patients to access the right treatments the first time” – it added.

What it really means: 

What it really means ‘treatment outcomes-based drug pricing’ or ‘value-based drug pricing (VBP)’. In other words, a situation where drug prices are set in line with their real and demonstrated clinical and economic value to patients, against other available products. This model will also ensure that patients’ money doesn’t get wasted from drugs that aren’t effective on them. The VBP model is, thus, significantly different from product pricing, based on ‘undisclosed’ cost of ongoing innovation for new drugs.

Is this Big Pharma’s new way to change optics?

The intent for imbibing VBP, as expressed by the above pharma association, throws open the door for discussion of its core intent. Is the intention real, or another Big Pharma way of changing general optics on the sensitive issue of new drug pricing? This doubt creeps in from the findings of some important studies on this issue. One such is an interesting paper, titled “Pricing for Survival” from KPMG. The analysis highlighted very limited application of VBP concept, and also why it is not yet viable – despite the hype being created around it.

According to KPMG, “there were 25 drugs engaged in various types of VBP with payers in the fragmented United States market as of September 2017. The problem is, these models appear to be limited in applicability to disease states with more standardized protocols and dominated by drug therapies with single indications – notably osteoporosis, diabetes and hepatitis C.” To date, VBP models seem to be facing several constraints, such as it is appealing mostly to payers that are fully integrated with healthcare delivery i.e., closed-loop payer-provider health systems or integrated delivery networks.

“The takeaway is, when it comes to specialty and orphan drugs, outcomes-based pricing simply faces too many barriers at present” – the article elaborated. Be that as it may, let me now explore the relevance of VBP in India.

Any relevance of VBP in India?

VBP has been tried in a health care environment where payers and drug companies are two critical players for access to affordable medicines, as we see in the KPMG study. Under any value-based pricing agreements for pharmaceuticals, both payers and pharma companies agree to link payment for a medicine to the value achieved, rather than volume.

Whereas, in the Indian healthcare scenario, as we are experiencing today, payers are mostly individuals.  Despite various well-publicized health schemes, expenditure on health, including drugs, remains by and large ‘out of pocket (OoP)’ – for a large Indian population. Hence, copying western framework for implementation VBP in India, would call for scores of ‘pharma – individual payer agreements.’ This would be a daunting task, if not impractical, to even try it out.

In this context, let me touch upon the Ayushman Bharat scheme that was launched by the Prime Minister on September 23, 2018, but just in one of the 29 states of India – Jharkhand. If, or as and when it will cover the entire country, the scheme is expected to bring 107.4 million families and more than 550 million people under health insurance coverage. However, the work seems to be still in progress.

There are three financing models for this scheme – insurance model, trust model and hybrid model – and the 19 states that have come on board for the scheme’s implementation in the country, have chosen a trust model, according to the Union Health Minister. The minister also reiterated: “Things are still unfolding. Only when the letters reach the beneficiaries will they understand and react.”

Nevertheless, the Union Health Minister himself, just like his counterparts in the previous governments, exhibited confidence that the country is “moving towards universal health cover with Ayushman Bharat scheme,” – as was the headline of the above media report.

Going by the past and current outcomes of several such government schemes in the country, and what the minister himself articulated on September 17, 2018, a large section of the Indian population still remains  apprehensive on the fast pan-India rollout and overall success of this ambitious health scheme. Hence, at this stage, I reckon, it may not be relevant to discuss the application of VBP model on Ayushman Bharat project. I wrote about such apprehensions in this Blog on June 18, 2018.

Having said that, VBP still remains relevant when we look at the government’s intent captured in the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy (NPPP) 2012,’ as I shall discuss below.

VBP and the policy implementation gap:

For making the point clearer, let me keep the Ayushman Bharat scheme aside because of its associated uncertainties. Even in the current health care environment of high OoP expenditure on drugs, especially on high priced new drugs, if one tries to make use of the VBP model, it is very much possible.

This is because, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2012, under point 4 (XV) on ‘Patented Drugs, categorically states:  “There is a separate Committee constituted by the Government order dated February 01, 2007 for finalizing the pricing of Patented Drugs, and decisions on pricing of patented drugs would be taken based on the recommendations of the Committee.”

Curiously, even 6 years down the line, no meaningful decision has been taken on patented drug pricing in India by the successive governments. As I wrote in this Blog on December 12, 2016, Price Negotiation For Patented Drugs: Still A Policy Paralysis.

Parliamentary Standing Committee intervenes:

Six years after the constitution of the committee by the Department of Pharmaceutical (DoP), the long-awaited report was eventually submitted with a vague formula for pricing patented drugs in India. Intriguingly,the issue remained as such, until the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s August 2016 report was placed before the parliament. It strongly criticized the DoP’s efforts to recommend measures in regulating prices of life-saving patented drugs, despite government assurances for the same.

On September 23, 2016, media reported: “Upbraided by the parliamentary standing committee for its gross negligence and lackadaisical attitude, the department of pharmaceuticals has set about seeking suggestions from different ministries on price regulation of patented drugs.”

According to reports, a new inter-ministerial committee was formed thereafter, under the chairmanship of one of the Joint Secretaries of the DoP to suggest a new mechanism to fix prices of patented drugs in the country.
The other members of the committee are Joint Secretary – Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP); Joint Secretary – Ministry of Health and Family Welfare; and Member Secretary – National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA). But, the saga continues – at the cost of patients’ health interest.

Conclusion:

As it appears, there still lies a clear opportunity for Indian drug pricing policy makers introduce VBP concept for patented drugs in the country. Following this model, the prices of new and innovative drugs under patents can be set in line with their real and demonstrated clinical and economic value to patients, over the available existing products. Health Technology Assessment (HTA), for example, could be an effective tool in this process.

Additionally, the VBP model could also minimize, if not eliminate the risk of patients paying a high a price for new drugs coming through incremental innovation, adding too little clinical and economic value over existing drugs. There may, of course, be some teething trouble or even important issues in arriving at consensus on value-metrics for VBP. But, this can be sorted out through meaningful engagement with concerned parties.

Strikingly, even after 6 years since the NPPP 2012 was announced, nothing tangible has been made known to stakeholders on the execution of ‘patented drug pricing policy’ in India. An avoidable policy execution gap continues, limiting access to affordable new medicines to a vast majority of the Indian population, even today.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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