Oct 21, 2022 - Health

The next step in Biden's effort to lower drug prices

Illustration of a hand screwing in a lightbulb with a dollar sign in the middle.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The next phase of the Biden administration's bid to curb rising drug costs is in the hands of an under-the-radar federal office called the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI).

Driving the news: The center will publish a report within three months on how it can use new payment and delivery models to lower drug costs and boost access to treatments for beneficiaries of the two government health programs, per a recent executive order from President Biden.

Zoom in: CMMI was created through the Affordable Care Act to experiment with new ways of paying for and delivering health care.

  • Pilot programs typically last for years. Participation is usually voluntary, but the center can require provider involvement in some cases.
  • CMMI programs can become permanent fixtures of Medicare and Medicaid —  if they're found to save money or improve care quality.

Be smart: The expectation is the center will tackle the prices health providers pay for Medicare drugs like infusions or injectables. Under the Inflation Reduction Act, the government can't negotiate prices for these drugs until 2028.

  • Experimenting with price negotiation or payments based on patients' health outcomes could help regulators learn best practices before that start date.
  • The center may also look for ways to incorporate drug pricing reforms into its existing projects and across different federal payers, said David Ault, a lawyer at Ropes & Gray and a former CMMI employee.

Refining policies from recent congressional action on Medicare prescription drug pricing could also be on the agenda.

  • The center could test alternative versions of the $2,000 annual cap on out-of-pocket costs for Medicare prescription drugs, for example.
  • Incorporating a monthly spending limit "could avoid having people pay everything in one month, after which all of their treatments are free," Stacie Dusetzina, a health policy professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, wrote in an email.

Flashback: CMMI has tried to tackle drug prices under previous administrations, with mixed success.

  • Both the Obama and Trump administrations failed to implement experiments meant to lower health providers' Medicare drug costs. But 106 health plan sponsors currently participate in a center program that gives seniors access to lower-cost insulin.

Reality check: It could take some time to get new drug pricing experiments up and running.

  • Programs typically take a year and a half to two years to be approved and implemented, so any new drug pricing model likely wouldn't start until at least 2024, Ault said.

Don't forget: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the center's parent, will continue its own work on drug pricing as it implements policies from the Inflation Reduction Act.

  • Congress also hasn't tapped out of the discussion. Lawmakers seem keen to continue talking about insulin costs and pharmacy benefit manager practices, Rachel Sachs, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told Axios.

Zoom out: Expect to see more from CMMI in the next couple years, on drug pricing reforms and other federal health care policy issues.

  • “You oftentimes see the innovation center being very active in the last few years of administration, trying to take ideas or concepts ... far enough along that they're in place, should there be a change in political party,” Ault said.
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