Treatment

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Treatment (noun)
medical care given to a patient for an illness or injury

On the heels of three generics for fingolimod* being approved by the FDA for use in the U.S., I thought this post might help people understand the following:

  • Generic
  • Biosimilar
  • Cost for these medicines (including patient assistance programs)

But first an important question to ask:

Is more always better? The answer, it depends.

Generics
When people think of generics, medicines like Tylenol vs acetaminophen come to mind, which is true. HOWEVER, when it comes to medicines that treat diseases like multiple sclerosis it’s not that simple. Even with acetaminophen it’s not that simple. There are things like stabilizers for the drug that need to be taken into consideration in terms of tolerability. Generic does not equal, well, equal.

Biosimilars
Biosimilars are even more complex given how medicines like monoclonal antibodies are developed, and as it states directly in the name “similar.” Generally, the data and information necessary to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of a reference product will include clinical trials for the disease indications being sought by the manufacturer.**

Rule of thumb for MS and other diseases is if someone is stable on treatment, you don’t want to rock that boat by changing and you can rest assured in the U.S. PBMs like CVS Caremark and Express-Scripts will remove these brands from their formularies pushing people to change meds that work for them (the former has already done it with Avonex for 2020). All this despite what doctors and people living with MS might want or need.

Costs
People assume that these medicines will be cheaper, and for complex drugs that isn’t the case. In the U.S. generics and biosimilars come out around the same cost as the brand because that is what the market will bear, and, to date, we don’t have any government body governing the cost of the medicines which are set by the pharmaceutical companies. And patient assistance programs (PAPs), while currently desperately needed, help, they also add to the problem. Pharmaceutical companies get massive tax breaks for these programs along with great PR. If the cost of medicines in the U.S. were highly regulated like they are in other countries, there wouldn’t be a need for PAPs

While above is simplified for ease of reading, this knowledge is derived from 25 years of working in clinical research and 10 years living with MS. I am always happy to answer questions or point people to information that can help. You can contact me through the website or via social media any time!

Please also see this post about medicine from earlier this year.

To further understand drug costs, check out the great work of Patients For Affordable Drugs

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* Of note: Novartis has ongoing patent disputes and fingolimod generics will not be available for the public until these suits are settled, despite FDA approval.

**accessed December 7, 2019 https://www.fda.gov/drugs/biosimilars/biosimilar-development-review-and-approval

Medicine

medicine

Medicine (noun)
a compound or preparation used for the treatment or prevention of disease, especially a drug or drugs taken by mouth

As Grace Slick said so many years ago, “one pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small…”

As we are all aware, medicines to treat multiple sclerosis are not cheap, nor are they affordable. But many of us, myself included, will agree that they are part of what keeps us moving, literally. Admittedly many of us pay little or nothing out of pocket owing to patient assistance programs, but those programs wouldn’t be needed if the cost wasn’t astronomical out of the gate. And to clarify, I am not talking about new medicines, although that’s helping to drive the problem, I’m talking about medicines that have been on the market for many years, like Avonex.

When I started on treatment in June, 2009, Avonex retailed at $26k per year. Fast forward to 2019, and take a guess, no really, take a guess what a drug approved in 2002 costs, give up? On average, about $87k per year, give or take, so a $60k increase in just 10 years. And each time I receive the insert for my quarterly supply, it goes up, and up, and up, and up. I used to feel bad about having to take a medicine that was so expensive, but considering my contributions to society, and the taxes I pay, it means I continue to contribute to the cost of developing medicines. So round and round we go.

While it’s true that the list price is rarely paid by anyone, having that be the ceiling means that people also pay more out of pocket (co-pay) when all is said and done. And people on Medicare and Medicaid are unable to participate in the patient assistance programs, thanks to president 43. Nor are government agencies able to negotiate the cost of medicines, like every other developed country, which means the United States is subsidizing the cost of research and development for the rest of the world.

Patents also factor into the costs of meds, but explaining that, would quite literally, do your head in. And most recently the skyrocketing cost of insulin and epipens, which leads to rationing (and do you take your insulin or eat?), and subsequently people being sicker, which in turn impacts the cost of their healthcare (and everyone’s).

For this post I will only be looking at people who have insurance. The next image is clear as mud since there are so many hands in the cookie jar, and because if you try to ask the cost of a medicine, you will get 100 different answers and that’s based on how the hands all negotiate the list price. Next to housing, healthcare is the biggest expense most people have, and yet we have no say in negotiating costs, unlike just about every other big expense in our lives. IMG_0613

We have the pharmaceutical company, the insurance company, the pharmacy benefits management (PBM) companies, and the consumer (general public). And some might also include politicians, since they get their share as well (contributions to the committee members referenced below), but in a different way. Though one can argue that campaign contributions also add to the high cost of medicines (see Citizen’s United – the content of the advertising speaks for itself).

Everyone above takes their cut, mind you, while I have issues with insurance companies arbitrarily deciding what medicines people should be allowed to take (a decision that SHOULD be between my doctor and me), the PBMs such as Express-Scripts (Accredo), CVS Caremark, etc. are just plain scourge of the earth. I have been doing battle with them for years. These are two of the largest PBMs thanks to monopolies and insurance companies buying them up. See the complaints for both Express-Scripts and CVS Caremark and these are just from Consumer Affairs. Facebook and Twitter are riddled with 10s of thousands of complaints about both companies.

The argument is that mail order / specialty pharmacies are better suited to taking care of medicines for diseases like MS, and I can tell you that this is just.not.true.! Imagine having to beg a giant corporation to do their job effectively, like something as basic as ordering a refill on an app, and that refill never being transferred to the specialty arm of the pharmacy. And financially, my local pharmacy has told me time and again, that they can, and do, handle specialty medicines with ease. And having that personal connection to someone is way better than talking to a toll-free number, where they couldn’t care less about whether or not your medicine is delivered on time or within proper temperature controls.

So while I will never begrudge a company making a profit, unnecessarily high costs (set by pharmaceutical companies), stop gaps (PBMs), and senior leadership salaries and bonuses, on the backs of people who need these medicines, is downright offensive. On top of that, direct to consumer marketing, only allowed in the United States, and New Zealand, is a $10b a year (U.S.) expenditure. As the saying goes, if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it.

Pharmaceutical companies argue that raising the cost of current medicines is what allows them to develop new and innovative treatments. However consider that basic research is typically started at the NIH, and then the pharmaceutical industry runs with it, taxpayers (us) already fund part of the development of medicines.

On Monday, February 25, congress held a public all day session with the top seven pharmaceutical companies. I have worked in the industry for almost 25 years, and even I learned from watching it. Albeit long,  it’s definitely worth it to understand the issues and challenges. And I can also say that all of the colleagues I have encountered over the years, do genuinely want to find cures and help people living with diseases. At issue is having shareholders and developing medicines for people who need them, is, in fact, an ultimate conflict of interest.

Pharmaceutical companies participating in above:
AbbVie
AstraZeneca
Bristol-Myers Squibb
Johnson & Johnson
Merck
Pfizer
Sanofi

“What keeps you up at night?”
None of heads of the companies said – the cost of medicines

Why in the United States do some think that healthcare should be a privilege, as opposed to a birth right? Cost of medicines is a highly complex issue, but does it need to be?

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Choice

Choice

Choice (noun)
an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities

Today is the 9th anniversary of starting on treatment for multiple sclerosis. This amounts to about 486 injections, minus illness, birthday week, and travel. Sometimes it feels like it’s been forever, since I no longer really remember a time when I didn’t feel MS. Some weeks it’s matter of fact and others it’s hard. Fortunately the last 1.5 years, it’s been 90% of the former and maybe 10% of the latter.

Statistics say that there are around 1m people living with MS in the United States, and almost 3m globally. But since MS is not required to be reported, we rely on data that is often manipulated, especially in the U.S., since it relies on diagnostic codes, which are often fudged in order to gain insurance coverage.

In 2018 we are lucky to have 16 disease modifying medicines for MS, with more to come. Just a short 20 years ago, people were sent home with steroids (maybe) and told not to move. Also, there are a host of meds for symptoms and side effects of the disease.

What we still don’t have is a cure. I hear this about MS all time, but I don’t really listen since I know how complex this neurological disease is and certainly not easy to dissect. That said, I do believe there can be better targeted treatments with less side effects. Better (and more) research in stem cells from your own body, rather than having to go through the toxic process of obliterating your immune system, like for people living with cancer.

It’s such an odd thing living with a disease that people can’t see and one that each of us experiences in very individual ways. As they say, when you’ve met one person with MS, you’ve met one person with MS. #snowflake

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Treatment

 

 

Treatment planTreatment (noun)
a session of medical care or the administration of a dose of medicine

Today is the eighth anniversary of starting treatment for multiple sclerosis. My math skills are fuzzy at best, but if you figure 52 injections a year times eight years, that’s 416 injections, give or take based on illness, birthdays, etc. But for the most part, weekly injections, for eight years.

At the time of my diagnosis there were only injectables or infusions, not the oral meds there are today. One of the things I’ve learned both professionally and personally, often times knowing what you don’t want is just as, if not more important than, knowing what you do want.

Given what I do for a living, I was able to review the clinical trial and usage data and whittle my list of treatment options down to what I was willing to do. Although my body was in turmoil at that point, I knew I wasn’t willing to inject more than once a week. Inject, it’s an odd concept. I also knew I couldn’t do nothing, or only treat holistically as some recommended. That.was.not.an.option. Complementary, definitely, alternative, no way.

For most people the notion of doing harm to yourself isn’t ingrained. Having to do something as violent as an intramuscular injection, that causes flu-like symptoms, even once a week, seemed so violent to me. I could easily do it to someone else, just like I loved watching brain and heart surgery, but to myself? Hell.no.

Once I decided on a course of action, I ran it by my neurologist here in the U.S. before setting the wheels in motion in Basel. We hadn’t anticipated a delay in starting treatment, which I’d mentally prepared myself for, but another week more separated the start date from what was originally planned. I didn’t fully grasp the whole long distance marathon thing at that point, given I never endeavored to actually run a marathon.

The onset happened end of March and diagnosis middle of April, by the beginning of June 2009 my body was so sick, that starting on treatment was not only a way for the physical healing to begin, but a way to take “control” over a life that felt very much out-of-control. Starting treatment was also a step in the life is unpredictable direction. One of the worst diseases a type A control freak could get IMO. I was incredibly scared of what was next.

When the decisions were made and drug ordered, J followed by N came over to be with me. Although it was one of the worst times in my life, looking back it also showed me that I can ALWAYS come out on the other side and be ok. A few more bumps, bruises, and warts, but ok just the same.

June 5, 2009 was 1/4 of the injection (you increase the dose over four weeks until the full dose). We practiced on an orange and these little pin cushion type contraptions. In case you’re wondering, none of them ACTUALLY mirror that of injecting yourself. Even hospitals in Europe don’t have the same level of aircon that we have in the U.S. and sitting in the little exam room, learning my new skill, and then having to execute, left me light-headed and near passing out. The first injection was administered by the nurse. We would try again the following week. I needed a STIFF drink.

A HUGE shout out to nurses, because the nurse I worked with, A, at the University Hospital of Basel’s neurology clinic, was beyond amazing. She took one of the worst times in my life and made it as tolerable as it possibly could be under the circumstances. I was 4,000 miles away from home, in a healthcare system vastly different from ours. I will be forever grateful to her.

When I moved home to NYC, she was one of the last stops I made to say good-bye. And when I returned to Basel last year for vacation, she was one of the first stops I made. Going back to where I was diagnosed was bitter sweet, but seeing her was a happy occasion. When you live in an area with a large expat population, your patients come and go. She told me that I’m one of the few that has kept in touch. I couldn’t imagine not.

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