Why private sector needs to lead on health reform
As the editor of the publication, I have both the blessing and the curse of deciding which stories make it into the magazine each issue. It is a curse because these can be very difficult decisions to make; beyond which stories make the lineup, there is always the issue of how much of the story we choose to run. After all, a page only holds so many lines of copy.
But the job has its upside, too. Like now, when as a result of my trusty red pen, I am left with enough edits for an entire column. I’ll just consider it a gift from Drug Store News senior pharmacy editor Jim Frederick.
Jim’s story on the three-way partnership between IBM, Google and Continua Health Alliance (see page 25) speaks right to the heart of why the private sector needs to lead the way on healthcare information technology. Last year, Google announced that it was going into the personal health record business; this new deal with IBM and Continua demonstrates what can happen to health care by digitizing health records.
Google’s electronic health record initiative is not earth shattering. It has competition from software juggernaut Microsoft, which, about the same time as Google, launched a program called Heath Vault. And every Convenient Care Association provider-member—roughly 95% of the total retail clinic universe—has worked off an electronic medical record for about four years now. Make no mistake: If any one group has led the way on digitizing patient information, it has been the retail clinics.
Google’s collaboration with IBM and Continua is important, however, because it seeks to leverage the EHR technology to enable patients, providers and caregivers to make better health decisions.
Drug Store News senior OTC editor Michael Johnsen has written extensively about Continua, and I invite you to log on to www.drugstore-news.com to learn more about Continua.
In the meantime, here’s the Cliffs Notes version: Continua is a consortium of more than 100 major healthcare companies, device manufacturers and technology makers that came together a few years ago to ensure that their products, including blood pressure monitors and glucometers, spoke a common language and interfaced freely with common computer platforms. From that standpoint, the Continua mission anticipated this period that now seems to be underway, given the $20 billion commitment the Obama economic relief plan dedicates to health information technology stimulus.
Who is Continua? It’s such device companies as Bayer Diabetes Care, a sponsor of the sixth annual Drug Store News Diabetes Roundtable (see page 13), and Omron. It’s such big pharmaceutical companies as Novo Nordisk, another Diabetes Roundtable sponsor, Novartis and GSK. It’s such technology giants as IBM, Cisco and Intel. It is such global communications leaders as AT&T, Nokia, Sprint and Verizon. And it’s such big healthcare payers as Kaisar Permanente, UnitedHealth and Aetna. It’s the private sector showing our country how to move the needle on healthcare reform.
So, getting back to Jim’s story about Google, IBM and Continua, and what got left on the cutting room floor this issue. IBM built the software according to Continua standards; Google provides the platform for users to access the data. In fairness, and more to Drug Store News readers than to Jim, here is a look at what this new partnership means for everyday Americans.
“For example, a busy mom can receive daily electronic updates on the health status of an aging parent who lives alone, is suffering from high blood pressure and is on multiple medications,” IBM spokeswoman Gina Jesberg told Drug Store News. “A traveling businessperson who is diabetic and training for a marathon can have a real-time discussion about her blood sugar levels and heart rate with her coach hundreds of miles away.”
Google Health director Sameer Samat explained that the partnership “will help both providers and users gain access to their device data in a highly simplified and automated fashion.”
Added Dan Pelino, general manager IBM healthcare and life services industry, the new alliance harnesses “the rapidly growing use of remote patient monitoring across every part of the healthcare services industry,” and boosts “the real-time value of [patient health records] for consumers everywhere.”
And why Continua? Because there are 600 million people in the world with some form of chronic disease, explained Continua president Dave Whitlinger. “The time for greater personal health management is now,” he said.
As this issue of Drug Store News went to press, another force emerged from the private sector to take the lead on HIT, a coalition of more than 50 pharmacy operators, healthcare companies and technology vendors known as the Health Information Trust Alliance.
Who is HiTrust, as the group calls itself? It’s such companies as CVS Caremark, McKesson, Humana and Johnson & Johnson. Why HiTrust? To ensure that in a world of digitized health records, that the security of that information is appropriately safeguarded without unfounded patient privacy paranoia derailing all of the positives that HIT could deliver this country.
“Our focus is to increase trust in how health information is managed,” explained Dan Nukis, HiTrust CEO. “We want to lower costs, reduce risks, increase efficiency and decrease complexity.”
In the case of HiTrust, “trust” is a key word. As our government wrestles with the challenge of how to fix health care, lawmakers need to trust the private sector to lead us in the right direction. Because when you take a really close look at it all, you realize that so far, the private sector has led the way on much of what seems to constitute “health reform” in this country.
Walgreens set to expand distribution capacity
WOBORN, Mass. Walgreens is expanding the distribution capacity at its Mt. Vernon, Ill.-based distribution center by adding more portable robotic picking devices and upgrading many of its traditional conveyor-based systems into automated zones for sortation and movement of items to be shipped.
Walgreens uses the Kiva Mobile Fulfillment System from Kiva Systems in Mt. Vernon to store inventory and pick replenishment orders for its 6,700 stores and specialty pharmacies. Expanding the system in that distribution center puts nearly 1,000 mobile robots under a single roof, according to Kiva.
The upgrade marks the third expansion of the robotic picking system at the center since its initial deployment in 2007, Kiva noted. It also heralds a doubling of the throughput capacity at the center, the company reports.
“Productivity metrics from previous rollouts far exceeded Walgreens’ specifications for pick rate, accuracy, cycle time, tote utilization and installation time,” said Kiva CEO Mick Mountz. “By doubling capacity we expect Walgreens to quickly achieve an extraordinary new level of strategic competitive advantage and productivity.”
Congress takes up follow-on biologics bill
The long-awaited breakthrough for follow-on biologics may be close at hand.
Prompted by a far more supportive President and the growing crisis in healthcare funding, Congress has again taken up the call for a bill that would create a regulatory pathway for FDA approval of generic versions of biologically-engineered drugs. And with the strong affirmation of President Obama, who has campaigned for such an approval pathway, the newest iteration of the bill stands a far better chance of passage than previous attempts in the House and Senate.
The Promoting Innovation and Access to Life-Saving Medicine Act could mark the most significant change to the delicate balance of power between the branded and generic drug industries since passage of the landmark Hatch/Waxman compromise bill in 1984, which ushered in the modern era of me-too medicines. Tellingly, one of the new bill’s sponsors is an architect of that 1984 legislation, Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California.
The push for follow-on biologics augers well for both health plan payers and patients coping with the sometimes staggering costs of critically important but expensive pioneer biologics, and for the generic drug industry itself as it faces a critical shortage of new marketing opportunities as the number of blockbuster drugs facing patent expirations dries up. A new pipeline of me-too biologics could help fill the gap.
“With countless patients struggling to pay the high costs of brand biopharmaceuticals, an approval pathway for safe, effective and affordable biogeneric medicines that provides access sooner rather than later is desperately needed,” stated Kathleen Jaeger, president and CEO, Generic Pharmaceutical Association.
Cost-saving considerations aside, there’s no disputing the business potential follow-on biologics represent. Bio-engineered pharmaceuticals and specialized, highly targeted medications aimed at serious chronic or life-threatening diseases represent the only major bright spot right now in the global pharmaceutical market, with growth rates that far outpace the sluggish market for mainline meds. Indeed, most of the drugs that have reached blockbuster status in recent years have been biologically engineered specialty meds.