Archive for the ‘Assistance’ Category

News from China  gives us even more pause to reflect on the access to medicines scenario. The situation in the US where there are no good excuses for unaffordable medicines, pales in comparison to this chilling tale of a patient whose actions to secure the life-saving drug imatinib mesylate at an affordable price, has resulted in his criminal prosecution.

Veenat400mgTo prosecutors, a leukemia patient named Lu Yong is a criminal involved in credit card fraud and a counterfeit drug scam. But to 1,000 fellow leukemia patients in China, Lu is an unsung hero for helping them get access to cheap, life-saving generic medicines from India.

His crime?  Selling fake drugs and breaking a law about purchase of international credit cards.  What Lu did was considered criminal because any drug  produced in or imported into China without the government’s approval is classified as a “fake drug,”  and Lu purchased international credit cards online to facilitate the transactions. China.org.cn reported that:

The defendant, Lu Yong, was diagnosed with chronic myelocytic leukemia in 2002. He was prescribed Gleevec, a drug produced by Swiss drug-maker Novartis, which cost 23,500 yuan (US$ 3,775) per month, far too expensive for average Chinese families. Lu was even more depressed since the expenses of treating leukemia are not covered by China’s medical insurance system.

Lu later found out that India produced a generic drug which was comparable to Gleevec but which cost only 4,000 yuan, about 17 percent of the cost of Gleevec. He took the medicine himself and found it effective. Later, Lu began helping several thousand fellow patients buy the drug, since the purchasing process was difficult and some patients were not able to fill out the English purchase forms.

Meanwhile, Lu’s trial has been postponed due to his health problems, and some 300 fellow patients with CML have signed an online petition asking for his release.

Also of significance is the astronomical price of Gleevec in China,  said to be the highest in the world, which led  Lu to seek an alternative.  As a point of comparison, Costco’s US online pharmacy is now selling a 30-day supply of the standard 400mg dose of Gleevec for $9022.05.



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Consumer info fact sheets  translated into WA’s threshold written languages   (Chinese, Lao, Khmer ( Cambodian), Korean, Russian,  Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese) were posted on Dec. 16, just one week before the deadline to start an application for coverage to be effective Jan. 1, 2014. In an unrelated development, HBE  decided on this brief extension  for completing applications due to various  problems people have had in being able to use the online forms and or access phone customer services.  Regarding the translated fact sheets, it’s taken almost 6 months for their publication to replace the original problematic versions that were taken down from the site.
However, the new fact sheets are not easy to find as they are not posted on the consumer website,  but located exclusively on the HBE corporate website.  The corporate site features a line at top right-hand side of homepage entitled “Information in Other  Languages” which links to the fact sheets page, plus also links out to the consumer website.  In contrast, the consumer Healthplanfinder site (which is in both  English and Spanish) does not offer any such subject line, nor does it display a link to corporate site.  The Healthplanfinder site likewise does not contain any readily visible clear statement of consumer  language access or disability access rights, except for a message in tiny font on bottom of the homepage that says [sic] : If you need additional language or disability accomodations, you may call 1-855-WAFINDER (1-855-923-4633)  On the Spanish version of the website, this statement illustrates yet another example of  faulty translation, as the term “disability accomodation” is twice translated, and very ungrammatically, as  “discapacidad alojamiento”  which means disability lodging.  Sure enough, a quick check on Google Translate  English > Spanish reveals  “lodging” as the first  translation for “accommodation.”  Since 2012 advocates had been recommending the inclusion of multilingual tag lines and/or translated summaries sections for the website. Interpretersymbol

Information on some metrics for the Healthplanfinder call center became available last week with the release of the  November Healthplanfinder Data Report. On the language access side of things (p.10 of the report)  the numbers are not encouraging: the call center received almost 12,000 calls in Spanish, but handled only some 1600 of them. The call center in Spokane has bilingual Spanish-English staff (reported as 6 out of 80 employees at start-up) on site and routes calls in other languages to a telephonic interpreter service. For calls in all languages besides Spanish combined, 1045 were actually handled (answered)out of 3621 calls attempted. The report does not state if the multilingual calls are included in the totals for approximately 35,000 calls  handled in November or the almost  158,000 calls throttled (deflected from the system, i.e. not put into the queue to await a response).  While the HBE is said to be increasing staffing for the call center,  any increases planned for its language capacity are as yet unknown. Given the demand, it would seem that Spanish-speaking callers too could benefit from immediate access to interpreter services.

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In these times of intense attention to healthcare from all quarters of the US,  a new study by USA Today and Kaiser Health News reporters focused on community clinics.  Over the past 2 decades community clinics have  developed from origins often as volunteer-run efforts, to become a vital part of  what is called the safety-net. Frequently they now are the sole source of care available to over 20 million people, often as the only providers who will accept patients covered by Medicaid,  and for the growing ranks of the uninsured. The sorry state of healthcare access would be far worse if it were not for community clinics.  These centers will play an important role too in the reforms set to start in 2014. It is expected that many who will become newly insured  by Medicaid will be seeking  care at community clinics. Long woefully underfunded, clinics will be eligible to receive help from the $10 billion approved by Congress for expanding their  service capacity.   

The report entitled  Community clinics have odds stacked against them  looked  at almost 1200 community clinics across the country, and ranked them based on the 6 categories of performance quality measures which federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) must report to the federal government.  The categories cover care for patients with diabetes and high blood pressure, rates of screening for cervical cancer and childhood immunizations, plus timeliness of prenatal care and rates of low birth-weight babies.

Using  2010 clinic performance data obtained by FOIA request, the reporting team found wide variations in care by center,  by region of the country, and between specific centers in the same city.  Generally, clinics in the South performed worse that those in New England, the Midwest, and California. Overall, their  survey showed community clinics not performing as well as the national averages for the study parameters .

There is more context to understanding the survey results however, that was not part of the report.  The National Association of Community Health Centers issued a statement about the report which while recognizing the value of examining clinic performance, expressed concern about the wrong impressions that the media study might give:

The article disregards the better quality care that most health centers achieve when compared to care provided to other low-income patients elsewhere.  However, at least the article does reveal what few Americans realize– that every health center reports on the quality of care their patients receive….


…When you compare the federal data that is the focus of the USA Today article with national data from the National Center for Health Statistics, health centers performed better than national averages for entering women into prenatal care during the first trimester, childhood immunization rates, reduced low birth rates and hypertension control…..

NACHC recently published its report Health Wanted – The State of Unmet Need for Primary Health Care in America  which takes an in-depth look at the factors behind the consistent and increasing demand for community clinics, the links to social determinants of health and how funding has not kept up to meet population needs.  In FY 2011 for example, only 67 out of some 1900 applications for new health center service sites were funded.

Seattle/Local Health Guide extracted localized  figures from the report to create a Washington State Comparison Chart.  Janna Wilson, Senior External  Relations Officer for the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health shared additional concerns with me  in a personal  communication, about implications and lack of context  for specific data used for the local news article:

The data provided for Public Health represents a small subset of the patients we see—our homeless primary care patients. This is because Public Health’s federal health center grant comes under a targeted program called Health Care for the Homeless. Our federal data report, therefore, is specific to our homeless patients per federal reporting requirements.  As you know, homeless patients face barriers that often exacerbate medical and behavioral health conditions and complicate treatment plans.

While most community health center grants and programs are for the general low-income population, some — like ours — target special population groups such as homeless people or migrant workers.  There is nothing in the USA Today article that provides this important context. That said, quality improvement is a big part of our program for all our patients, whether homeless or housed.

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Recent developments in Washington and neighboring Oregon are reminders of the clout and lobbying power of Big Pharma on the local level.

Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen announced that he was working to implement a  discounted prescription drug program for Seattlites , a program of the National League of Cities.  At first glance this might seem like a boon most of us, cash-strapped and increasingly uninsured and underinsured, but in reality the plan is not needed, won’t offer much in the way of bargains, and is linked to a questionable PBM. With all due respect to Rasmussen, who undoubtedly has good intentions , he seems unaware that we already have a drug discount program available at no charge to all state residents, the Washington Prescription Drug Program , which offers discounts up to 60% on generics and 20% on branded drugs, while the NLC program  offers maximum discounts up to 23% of full retail prices.  Another concern is that the NLC card is an offering of CVS Caremark, the mega-PBM which has earned itself notoriety for  unethical business practices, including overcharging government employee health plans ( including the federal plan) for Rx medicines and drug-switching on scripts. The Seattle-only program is due to start next month, so now is a good time to weigh in with Rasmussen and his fellow City Councilmembers , as well as with Mayor Mike McGinn on the issue.  In addition to helping to increase awareness of the WPDP, our city elected officials could really offer a public service by creating a drug price comparison tool that surveys Seattle pharmacies.

And in the Washington Legislature, among several bills dealing with prescription drugs ( look for my comments in the future), for the third year in a row we saw  Drug Companies Fight Take-Back Program for Unused Medicine. They claim that take-back programs, which they would be required to help pay for, would do little to stop  abuse of prescription drugs and that environmental concerns about trashing meds are essentially bogus. Take Back Your Meds, a group of over 260 health organizations, police, drugstores, local governments, environmental groups and concerned individuals vows to keep up the fight.

In Oregon, a legislative defeat with direct negative impact there and for partner WA in the Northwest  Drug Purchasing Consortium , pharma and insurance industry muscle united to make sure that  Oregon Prescription Drug Program Bill Dies a Second Death. SB 1577 would have required all state agencies to purchase medicines for beneficiaries through the Oregon Prescription Drug Program, reversing the current optional  status.  When the OPDP and the WPDP were created in 2005, they formed the Northwest Prescription Drug Purchasing Consortium to achieve better prices through pooled volume purchasing but left participation optional for state agencies. In both states, for example,  the Dept. of Corrections does not participate.  And with efforts to control Rx costs stymied, we are seeing scenarios such as this year’s state budget proposal in Washington to eliminate completely prescription drug coverage for adults in the Medicaid program, only now with some hope of possible mitigation if competitive bidding for generic drugs is approved by the Legislature now in Special Session.

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Now more so that ever, learning of positive developments and new efforts of those working to make a difference, helps me to keep going . I share here with you some news of significance at the local, state,  and national levels.

In Washington State:

State lifts three-visit ER limit for poor patients

Workers’ wellness saving jobs in parks, policing, transit

Poor people win: Judge allows 11,000 to rejoin Basic Health

In New York State:

Medicaid team passes four sets of reform proposals, including Safe Rx  to “Promote Language Accessible Prescriptions”

Governor Cuomo Issues Executive Order to Improve Access to State Services for Non-English Speakers


One Million Young Adults Gain Health Insurance in 2011 Because of the Affordable Care Act

For kids in foster care, law now requires that states create protocols and actively monitor the use of psychotropic medications

Launch of Pharmacists United for Truth and Transparency

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Can We Afford Personalized Medicine?

Special treatment for ‘high profile’ patients; exasperation for the rest of us

Health Insurers Making Record Profits as Many Postpone Care

People Who Donate Organs For Transplants Can Have Difficulty Getting Insurance

Foundations, Conflicts Of Interest And Drugmakers

Mission Crash: The Intolerable Policy Incoherence in US AIDS Policy, Global and Domestic

 Office of Minority Health Awards Major Project to Support
CCHI’s work on Healthcare Interpreter Certification

WA Governor signs precedent-setting healthcare worker safety laws

Washington is first state in nation to ban toxic pavement sealants

HHS awards $4.9 million to support families of children with special health care needs

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The article Efforts to Undermine Public Health:  Health Advocacy Organizations and the Pharmaceutical Industry: An Analysis of Disclosure Practices in the Jan.13 issue of  American Journal of Public Health focuses some much-needed attention on a serious and growing problem , which directly impacts the creation of rational health policy.  It’s also good to see the wide media attention being given to the study, which has been flagged by venues across the spectrum, including  healthcare sector analysis and investigative reporting blogs to mainstream  business media and news reports.

It’s been interesting too,but not surprising to see, that a number of people are also sending identical comments to multiple venues  which covered the story, some to decry the findings of the study, or  to make  off-topic remarks. The comments from the National Health Council , for example emphasized that it has a policy of requiring member groups to have internal disclosure policies regarding industry support received. The NHC itself  has a listing of funding received in 2009 from its  many “Corporate Partners.”   However, just like with payments to physicians, merely acknowledging industry funding doesn’t mean that it does not influence the actions of the recipient, nor not create conflicts of interest.  Unlike the significant body of research on the topic of influences on the prescribing practices of doctors (which have found that while many  state that they themselves are not influenced by pharma gifts and perks, they believe that their colleagues are) , much less attention has been paid in the US to the phenomenon of  industry support of HAGs and its impact on public policy.

Based on personal observations both as  patient and a healthcare professional , I believe that the “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”  phenomenon  relating to HAGs, contributes to  the present inaction on getting states and federal government to do something about the exorbitant and escalating price of medicines as a public health measure. Until the electorate actively protests what is going on, the lobbying power of the biopharma industry  on Congress will remain in effect. While it is becoming more common to find  media pieces highlighting  complaints by provider and  disease groups  about the price of Rx drugs, along with the unaffordable co-pays for those insured, almost never do we hear patient advocacy groups demand that something be done about the situation.  The only logical conclusions that seemingly can be made about the scenario is either that the public is incredibility naive about how the pharmaceutical  and insurance  industries  function, or else HAGs have been so influenced by their pharma benefactors that recipients actually believe that the prices are justified by R & D costs, and that patient assistance programs ( PAPs) are a genuine access solution.  Likely it’s some combination of factors.  More about this later.

Since a requirement that  HAGs disclose industry funding was dropped from Sunshine Act provisions incorporated in the ACA, it’s time start to address the problem by pressing the IRS to require that all 501(c)3 charities disclose their funders and amounts received from each. At the same time, much more public education  is needed about  “the ties that bind”, to paraphrase the title of a 1999  report on the topic  by Health Action International.

In the meantime, those interested in starting to research  industry links to patient and disease groups will find the following resources of independent organizations helpful:

Essential Action
Pharmafiles database: Patient and Health Groups and Their Corporate Funders
Patients, Patents and the Pharmaceutical Industry

Knowledge Ecology International
Medical professional and patient group funding by drug and medical device companies

Healthy Skepticism

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