Tag Archives: MS drugs

Specialty Drugs Mean Specialty Prices

If you have MS, you’ve probably used a specialty drug. My first was Avonex, which I began to use about 1998. Several others followed.
There’s no formal definition of a specialty drug, but these therapies have several things in common. First, they’re expensive. According to the vice president in charge of specialty drugs at CVS Pharmacy, the average monthly cost is $3,000. A CVS website article says that’s about 10 times the cost of a non-specialty medication. Many specialty drugs are hard to administer, requiring an injection or infusion. And it may require special handling. My Avonex, for example, had to be shipped with dry ice to keep it cool.
So, I’m not surprised that the cost of specialty drugs is so much higher than your average prescription med. What really does bother me, however, is how fast the cost of these specialty drugs has been climbing.

Let’s look at the numbers

A few weeks ago, AARP released a lengthy report that studied 101 specialty drugs. Here are the headlines:
  • The price of the most widely used specialty prescription drugs increased substantially more than the general inflation rate in every year from 2006 to 2015.
  • From 2014 to 2015, specialty drugs had their highest annual price increase in a decade: an average hike of 9.6 percent. Inflation, on the other hand, increased by only 0.1 percent.
  • Prices for 29 chronic-use specialty drugs that have been on the market since the beginning of the study (from January 2006 to December 2015) increased cumulatively by an average of 177.3 percent. In contrast, general inflation increased by only 19.4 percent during the same period.

MS drugs are best-sellers

Multiple sclerosis drugs made up 12 of the 101 specialty drugs studied. Their average price rose 10.8 percent between 2015 and 2016, a little higher than the group average. Seven of those dozen MS drugs made the study’s list of 30 best-selling specialty drugs. (You can see the full list on page 30 of the report.)

RANK BY SALES DRUG DOSE DAILY COST 2015-16 HIKE (%)
6 Copaxone 20mg $201 7.6
7 Tecfidera 240mg $194 10.8
11 Copaxone 40mg $179 7.0
16 Avonex Auto-inject $198 15.2
17 Avonex Pre-filled $200 16.2
21 Rebif 44mcg $207 10.8
27 Betaseron 0.3mg $202 11.1

The drug that jumps out at me from this list is Avonex. Why should the price of a drug that’s been in use for nearly 20 years jump 15-16 percent in a year? Copaxone and Tecfidera both lead Avonex in sales, yet their price hikes were lower. Color me confused.

What’s the solution?

Is there a way to limit these price increases? In the CVS article I mentioned earlier, Dr. Alan Lotvin makes several suggestions, most of which don’t work for me.

Lotvin: “… Prior authorization and step therapy can be highly effective in controlling costs.”

Me: Step therapy means reducing costs by prescribing older, possibly less-effective drugs first rather than aggressively attacking MS with newer, more potent drugs. Some insurance companies insist patients follow this path, but it’s not the way that I want my MS treated.

Lotvin: “Another approach is the use of tiered formularies that require higher patient cost-sharing for more expensive therapies.”

Me: Yes, they do. And this is why many MS patients can’t afford to pay for the therapy that could be the most effective for them (though there are drug company programs that help some patients pay for these drugs).

Lotvin: “Ensuring that the drugs are administered at the lowest-cost site of care is also important — in most instances the hospital outpatient center is the highest-cost site of drug administration, while patients’ homes and doctors’ offices are typically the lowest.”

Me: Here, we agree.

The AARP study concludes:

“If recent trends in specialty drug prices and related price increases continue, it will almost undoubtedly become more difficult for patients to access and afford necessary specialty medications. The pricing patterns (price levels and price increases) for specialty drugs will lead to serious problems with respect to access and affordability issues in the future.”

Since access and affordability are already a problem, it seems to me that the future is now.

Yet, AARP offers no solutions, ending its report this way:

“Policy makers interested in reducing the impact of prescription drug prices should focus on options that drive significant innovation while also protecting the health and financial security of consumers and taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid.”

Well, yeah. But how do we find those options? The FDA has now approved generics for Copaxone 20mg and 40mg. That’s not an innovation, but, hopefully, it will help stick a pin in at least one specialty price balloon.

(This post first appeared as my column on http://www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com)

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Getting Help Paying for Your MS Drugs

With the recent approval of the multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus, I’ve again heard the plea “but how can I afford it?” Ocrevus carries a price tag of about $65,000 a year. That’s not high compared to some other MS drugs, but it can still mean a higher co-pay than some patients with insurance can afford. And it can appear to be totally unaffordable for those without coverage. Unless you know how to get help with those drug costs.

About six months ago I wrote about the programs that various drug companies and foundations have to assist MS patients in paying for their drug. With lots of folks looking for that help I thought it would be a good idea to review some of what’s out there.

Payment help from MS drug manufacturers

In the U.S., many drug companies have programs to provide their high-costing MS drugs to patients at a deep discount or, in some cases, for free. For Ocrevus, drug manufacturer Genentech has a number of options. For other MS drugs, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has an excellent, drug by drug, list of these programs on its website. I recommend checking it as a first stop in your search for help.

But there are rules regulating this practice in the U.S. and they don’t make a lot of sense from a patient’s viewpoint. Here’s how they work. If you have prescription drug insurance, either through your employer or as an individual, a drug company is allowed to reduce the amount of your co-pay for their drug.  When I was still working full-time, I was prescribed the drug Ampyra. At that time the average wholesale price for a 90-day supply of Ampyra was about $1,000 a month.  My insurance covered about 50% of that, so I was left with an unaffordable co-pay of about $500 a month for a drug that was really helping me walk. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of Acorda’s patient assistance program to limit my co-pay to no more than $40 a month, and I was able to continue on that drug.

Then I retired and moved from my employer’s drug insurance plan to Medicare Part D (the section of Medicare that pays for prescription drugs).  But, under the Medicare rules, drug companies aren’t allowed to pay-down the co-pay, as they do with private insurance. They must either provide the drug totally free of charge to a patient or they can’t provide any assistance at all.  And, to receive that no-cost benefit the patient’s income must be under a certain limit. My retirement income was too high to get the drug for free, but I still couldn’t afford the big jump from a $40 co-pay to $500 a month, so I had to go off the drug.

But, there’s another way …

Help from foundations

A foundation is the good place to turn when you have private insurance or Medicare, you’re still stuck with a high co-pay and the drug company is unable to help. It takes patience and good timing to obtain help from these non-profits, but it can be worth the effort. If you qualify for the help (there’s still an income ceiling but it’s usually fairly high), a foundation will approve a monetary grant for you. The grant will cover your co-pays and be paid directly to the pharmacy that’s providing your drugs for a specific amount of time, usually a year.

At one time I was receiving a grant of $6,000 a year from a foundation which covered all of my co-pays for Aubagio for that year…a significant out-of-pocket savings. Some of these foundations limit their grants to people on Medicare, while others also include patients with private insurance. A list of some foundations that will pay for MS drugs can be found at the bottom of the National MS Society webpage that I mentioned earlier.

You’ll need patience and good timing to travel this route. The foundations help patients with many different diseases and they can quickly run out of money for a specific disease until new donations are received. The problem is, the foundations don’t announce when their coffers are replenished. So, you need to check their websites, or call them, as frequently as possible to see if they have new money, and then apply quickly when they do.

 

Pills, shots or infusions for your MS?

[This first appeared as my column on http://www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com]

Oral multiple sclerosis meds appear, more and more, to be the first choice of patients who are just beginning to receive an MS treatment. A recent report by the independent marketing research firm Spherix Global Insights shows that oral disease-modifying therapies captured a significantly higher share of the market at the end of 2016 compared to 2015.  Tecfidera was at the top of the pills list with Aubagio gaining ground. But, final FDA approval of the infusion drug Ocrevus (ocrelizumab) could be a game-changer in the pill-shot-infusion decision.

Ocrevus

Neurologists and many MS patients are very familiar with Ocrevus. There’s a lot of chatter about it in online MS gathering spots, and many doctors report they intend to use it as soon as it is approved. And, even though most of the “buzz” is about prescribing Ocrevus for PPMS patients, it’s expected that a lot of doctors also are looking at it for those with RRMS. It could push ahead of other infusions, such as Tysabri and Lemtrada. as well as oral meds such as Tecfidera and Aubagio. Spherix reports more than one third of the neurologists it surveyed said they would have been likely to have started patients on Ocrevus, rather than on Tysabri, had it been available.

Weighing the treatment options

What drives these drug decisions? According to a Spherix report RealWorld Dynamix™: DMT New Starts in Multiple Sclerosis, the drivers include clinical considerations such as safety and efficacy, as well as non-clinical concerns including patient requests and the policies of the insurance coverage of those patients. Interestingly, it appears that neurologists are becoming more comfortable using high-efficacy DMTs right away for patients with aggressive MS, rather than working up to them from drugs with lower efficacy, but lower risk or cost.

Be involved in the decision

As the patient you should take an active role in your drug selection. A Spherix report released last fall showed that newly diagnosed MS patients are doing their research about DMTs. One in five of them are asking their neurologists about specific MS drugs. Those doctors say that 27% of their patients have a high degree of involvement in choosing the DMT they will use, 43% have moderate involvement, and 30% only low involvement. Unfortunately, more than 50% of the neurologists surveyed say that they, alone, choose the DMT the patient will use. About a third say they present a few choices, and then let the patient decide.  Only 10% of the docs say they present all of the options and then let the patient decide.

How did you decide which DMT to use? Are you thinking about changing?

Starting Down the Lemtrada Road

[This is an updated version of my column that first appeared on http://www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com]

The final drip of my first week of Lemtrada infusions will drop in about 30 minutes.  The headline is: It was a good week with no significant problems or discomfort.  I’ll be writing about this experience, in detail, in my next column.  But first, for those who aren’t yet up to speed on my journey, some background.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how Lemtrada has been successful in stopping disease progression in folks with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis and is also being used by some people who have the progressive forms.  There have also been many reports of some people who have had some symptoms improved.  But, I was writing about those reports.  Now, it’s personal.

Treatment Starts Before the IVs

Two days before my first infusion I began to pre-medicate to reduce the chance of some side-effects. I’m taking Acyclovir to reduce the chance of contracting the herpes virus. Doctors say that Lemtrada treatments raise the chance of getting this virus for some people. The allergy drugs Zantac and Zyrtec are being taken to limit hives and rashes.  I also have on hand ibuprofen, Benadryl and hydrocortisone creme to use, if necessary, to treat any pain, rash, hives or any increased temperature.

The Infusions

The five days of infusions involve three drugs.  First comes Solumedrol.  My neurologist tells that it serves two purposes.  As a steroid it calms the body’s immune system. But it’s also a histamine blocker, serving as another guard against hives, rashes and the like.  I’m to receive 1,000 mg on the first three days, 500 mg on the second fourth and 250 mg on the final day.

Next comes 25-50 mg of Benadryl by IV.  Finally, the star of the show…the Lemtrada – 12 mg over four hours.  Oops, not done yet.  After all the drugs there’s a two hour “watch” period, during which IV fluids continue.  In all, 7-8 hours each day.  Whew!

Drink Up

For the next several months I’ll be drinking lots of water. (That’s going to be tough for this MSer who has spent the past 35 years trying to avoid water). My neuro, and most “Lemmies” who’ve had these infusions, say it’s the best thing to do to limit uncomfortable side effects.  Flushing the toxins and dying cells out of my system, they say, is the best approach to feeling as good as I can.

Watch What You Eat

There are also foods that I’ve been told to avoid for the first month after my infusions.  This is to reduce the risk of listeria.  They include:

  • Hot dogs and deli meats (This will be a hardship).
  • Refrigerated pates and meat spreads.
  • Unpasteurized milk and dairy products.
  • Soft cheese made with unpasteurized milk, e.g. Feta, Brie, Queso Fresco and Camembert
  • Raw sprouts
  • Smoked seafood
  • Raw fish, e.g. sushi (I wouldn’t, anyway).
  • Raw eggs or meat
  • Prepared salads, e.g. chicken salad, ham salad and egg salad.
  • Wash all vegetables and fruits thoroughly

And After the Infusions

For a time I’ll be continuing the meds that I began before treatment started and I’ll be taking Prednisone to taper off the IV steroids.

I’ve been told to expect a roller coaster ride of good and bad days for a week or two – headache, body aches and fever – some days feeling like I’ve crashed and burned and others where I’m feeling well. After a month I’ll be scheduling physical therapy. After four or five months I’ve been told that I should see an improvement in my overall endurance.

That’s quite a ride for a 68 year old guy to anticipate but, as I’ve said several times in writing about Lemtrada, the potential benefit makes the risk and discomfort worthwhile.

So, my fingers are crossed.  Unless I’m really dragging, and at the bottom of the roller coaster loop, I’ll be reporting on my ride in about another week.