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Health overhaul on track with Obama’s pick for HHS

BY Jim Frederick

WASHINGTON It will take more than a global economic crisis to derail plans by the new Obama Administration for a major overhaul and expansion of the nation’s healthcare safety net.

With his nomination of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle as the nation’s top healthcare official, President-elect Barack Obama has signaled clearly his plan to follow through on a campaign promise to reform the nation’s overwrought healthcare system.

Daschle, a longtime champion of expanding health coverage to all Americans, likely will pass quick Senate confirmation as the next secretary of Health & Human Services. When that happens, the 61-year-old former lawmaker will oversee a massive federal health infrastructure that includes the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.

Daschle also will take charge of a new White House Office of Health Reform, the President-elect announced in December, making him the point man for Obama’s ambitious healthcare agenda.

Sensing a shift in the political winds, pharmacy and healthcare industry groups were unanimous, if guarded, in their praise of Daschle as the next HHS secretary. It was a reaction that mingled political realism with hopefulness about the future direction of health-reform efforts — and a realization, perhaps, that any expansion of health benefits to more of the nation’s estimated 45 million uninsured would mean more demand for both health services and prescription medicines.

Daschle lost his powerful seat in Congress in 2004, but has been busy in recent years promoting health reform proposals. If confirmed, he will lead a determined charge by the Obama Administration to reshape, perhaps fundamentally, the nation’s overwrought healthcare system — and to sell that vision to a Congress preoccupied with the global economic meltdown, the threat of terrorism and other issues.

The former Democratic senator from North Dakota “will be responsible not just for implementing our healthcare plan. He will also be the lead architect of that plan,” Obama told reporters last month.

Daschle is no stranger to health-reform efforts. He recently published a book, titled “Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Crisis,” detailing his proposals to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system, co-authored by Jeanne Lambrew, who will serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Health Reform. Among those proposals: creation of a federal board to oversee the healthcare system, modeled after the Federal Reserve Board and “independent from politics,” according to Daschle. Such a board would focus on cutting health costs in the United States by “determining which medicines, treatments and procedures are most effective — and identifying those that do not justify their high price tags,” Daschle wrote in “Critical.”

It’s an idea that’s anathema to conservatives concerned about rising government involvement in the private sector, and to industry groups that fear a federal health czar and oversight board will lead to a federal system of price-setting for expensive medications and treatments. But Daschle’s idea is welcomed by many advocates of universal coverage and more cost-effective health care.

Reaction to Daschle’s appointment was rapid and widespread, reflecting, perhaps, a desire among health industry groups to curry favor with the incoming administration, as well as a genuine expression of hope for change to a system plagued by unsustainable costs, inefficiency, antiquated information sharing and lack of patient oversight.

Among those who endorsed Daschle’s selection was Steven Anderson, president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. “NACDS applauds the nomination of former Senator Tom Daschle,” Anderson noted. “As an association representing retail pharmacies [that] are healthcare providers and also employers, we look forward to working with the Administration on healthcare reform to make it a reality.

“President-elect Obama referred to Mr. Daschle as the ‘architect’ of reforming the healthcare system,” added Anderson. “In these economically challenging times, his healthcare policy expertise will be valuable in the effort to reform healthcare to curb costs and help ensure affordable, quality and accessible healthcare for Americans.”

John Gray, president and CEO of the Healthcare Distribution Management Association, called Daschle “a strong choice to lead HHS and to coordinate efforts within the Administration as we enter a new era of healthcare reform. “Our member companies, the nation’s primary healthcare distributors, are committed to developing healthcare policies that improve the safety, affordability and accessibility of patient-focused healthcare,” Gray added. “Healthcare is one of the top priorities on our nation’s agenda, and more than ever, we will need to work together — across business and government — to develop practical solutions to enhance the U.S. healthcare system.”

Kathleen Jaeger, president and CEO of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, praised the incoming health reform czar for his “unparalleled experience in understanding how Washington works, coupled with a true dedication to creating a dialogue with the American people on how to build a healthier nation. “Senator Daschle’s longstanding commitment to improving access to quality, affordable health care makes him an outstanding choice to lead our nation’s effort to enact effective healthcare reform,” said Jaeger. “He has already hit the ground running by reaching out to the healthcare community and concerned citizens to ensure that we move in the right direction,” she added. “There is no doubt that tackling escalating healthcare costs has reached crisis proportions as our economy spirals downward.”

The health insurance and pharmacy benefit management industries also weighed in. “The American people will welcome the nomination of Senator Tom Daschle, because it signals that the incoming administration intends to prioritize comprehensive healthcare reform,” noted Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans. “Senator Daschle is exceptionally well qualified to bring people together in support of universal coverage, cost-containment, and improved quality.”

The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, for its part, called the new HHS secretary “a recognized leader and the right choice to drive President-elect Obama’s mission to reform health care in this country. “An immediate priority outlined by the President-elect is to modernize health care and reduce costs by implementing the increased use of electronic health records. PCMA looks forward to working with Secretary-designate Daschle and the new Administration on accelerating adoption of waste-cutting EHRs and other health information technologies, such as electronic prescribing, that improve quality, efficiency and save money,” added the group in a statement.

Also citing the need for change was Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, which represents more than 300 large employers. “A consensus is emerging that the status quo is intolerable and unconscionable,” she said. “We strongly applaud the appointments of … Daschle and Dr. Jeanne Lambrew. Senator Daschle’s appointment will vastly improve the chances for enacting sustainable health reforms that will help transform the system,” added Darling. “Dr. Lambrew blends nationally recognized policy expertise with a real-world understanding of the challenges facing the healthcare system and will play a pivotal role in making reform a reality.”

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Actavis goes up for sale, peaks interest of major Rx companies

BY Alaric DeArment

NEW YORK Icelandic generic drug maker Actavis is for sale and could go for up to $10.8 billion at a time when many generic drug companies find themselves targets of acquisitions.

The fifth largest maker of generic drugs in the world, Actavis became a private company in 2007 after action by majority stakeholder Novator, led by Icelandic billionaire Thor Bjorgolfsson.

According to Reuters, a number of large drug makers could end up buying the company, including Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis.

In other news, the Food and Drug Administration announced Friday that it had filed a consent decree and was awaiting the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey’s entry of a permanent injunction forbidding Actavis’ U.S. subsidiary, Actavis Totowa, from manufacturing drugs in its New Jersey factories until the FDA decides the factories are in compliance with current good-manufacturing practice requirements.

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Winn-Dixie opens prototype store with expanded grocery departments, pharmacy

BY Michael Johnsen

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Winn-Dixie Stores on Wednesday opened a prototype store in its existing SaveRite location here featuring everyday low pricing on thousands of items a la Walmart, as well as monthly locked-in specials and special price-drop items in a warehouse format.

“In designing this concept, we spent a great deal of time reviewing our customers’ shopping preferences,” said Dan Portnoy, Winn-Dixie chief merchandising and marketing officer. “We wanted to make sure that the new store would be a true fit for the neighborhoods it serves. … We focused only on those items and services that were most important to our customers, and, as a result, we were able to aggressively cut costs and lower prices throughout the store.”

In addition to enhanced produce and meat departments, the 48,000-square-foot store also has an in-store pharmacy where customers will find 30-day supplies of more than 400 generic drugs for only $3.98 every day. Other features include newly designed warehouse-style shopping carts and popular staple items available for purchase by the case.

SaveRite closed the store Jan. 6, allowing time for associates to work through the afternoon and evening to lower thousands of prices. The company welcomed area leaders and residents to a preview on Tuesday evening where SaveRite donated $5,000 to Paxon Improvement Association. To celebrate the store’s new format, SaveRite will also host a Family Fun Event on Jan. 10.

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