HHS Pharmaceutical Forum owes me seven hours

Well, there’s seven hours of our life we’ll never get back …

Yesterday’s HHS Pharmaceutical Forum (breezily titled the HHS Pharmaceutical Forum: Innovation, Access, Affordability and Better Health) was mostly a warmed-over rehash of the daily back-and-forth in health care, putting forth the same tired solutions and no real consensus on how to move forward.

For this the HHS leadership took the day off, convened a room full of credentialed usual suspects and catered a sit-down lunch?

By any measure, the authentic patient voice was at once muted and manipulated. No wonder HHS kept such tight control on who they let in. We have to conclude they were less interested in robust discussion and innovative reforms than a long-winded talk-a-thon for insurers, hospitals, pharmacies, pharma and the health care bureaucracy.

The entire day was light on specifics and bereft of solutions to the real problems that patients are facing today. To even term this event “access” was a misnomer, for it ignored the real and actual barriers to access that are placed in front of patients every day.

Where were the ideas about speeding innovation so that patients can access the treatments they deserve? Where was the acknowledgement that the current system has marred the doctor-patient relationship?

Seven hours of talk and not one minute about ending practices like step therapy that require patients to “fail first” before they can receive the treatments that their doctors prescribe and they deserve.

What about specialty tiers?  Why is an oral chemotherapy agent treated differently than an intravenous one? What about the skyrocketing costs of hospital expenses? Does that come up in the next seven hours? What’s the point of the most powerful health care institution in the country convening a grand summit, only to sit and nod slowly and approvingly at the major players and their everyday talking points?

One moment, Express Scripts CEO Steve Miller suggested we modernize the FDA and make sure co-pays make sense. Sign us up for that!

In the next sentence, he said we should spend less on the pancreatic cancer treatment over a certain lung cancer treatment because the expected life extension is less.  As we’ve said before, this guy could really use some bedside manner training.

There was also one – (one!) – patient featured in the all-day discussion, which is all we need to know about who HHS thinks are the most important voices. She asked, poignantly: “Why should I have to worry about financial insolvency as much as my cancer?”

Why indeed? One might expect an auditorium practically overflowing with accumulated health care experience, knowledge and wisdom might want to know more … about her insurance company’s coverage, about any markups or rebates given to her doctor or hospital and if she’s being helped by patient assistance programs.

Not one word.

Instead, we were treated to the first HHS infomercial for price controls on medicine, courtesy of Peter Bach and his trusty Drug Abacus. He left out the part where he measures the rapidly rising cost of getting treated at his employer, Memorial Sloan Kettering. Also omitted is that as of November 15th, no one on any Obamacare exchange plan gets covered there. Does his abacus measure the affordability of the Affordable Care Act?

Doesn’t the HHS have have a fundamental obligation to bring all the players together for an elevated dialogue and not a spin session for their viewpoint? This not only didn’t live up to the hype, to us, it was a borderline abuse of power, transparently slanted towards the payer community and the insurance industry. What’s the solution? It’s not to balance the bias — it’s to push it aside altogether.

All players can contribute to a reform movement and engage in a deeper conversation. And the HHS could help lead that discussion. The patients we know are ready for a realistic exchange among the entire health care ecosystem of what is possible, what they can do and what the future holds for them.

If this was a round of golf, we’d suggest taking a mulligan. Secretary Burwell, call your office … and your scheduler.

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