FDA moving to expand access to experimental drugs

The FDA is taking steps to expand patients’ access to drugs that have not yet been approved for marketing, encouraging manufacturers to exclude fewer people from clinical trials and to publicize their policies about accessing drugs outside of clinical trials, according to a report from Government Accountability Office (GAO Report, GAO-19-630, September 9, 2019).

Clinical trials

Clinical trials often exclude patients by geography, age, or medical condition, and many stakeholders believe that the eligibility criteria are too narrow and exclude patients who are likely to be treated once a drug is approved, according to the GAO. Two recent laws have encouraged expanded access to pre-approved, or “investigational” drugs, the Federal Right to Try Act of 2018, which allows terminally ill patients and their doctors to request access to drugs without an FDA review process, and the FDA Reauthorization Act of 2017, which required the FDA to discuss and report on clinical trial inclusion and exclusion, and requires the GAO to report FDA’s actions to expand access to investigational drugs.

FDA efforts

The FDA has made efforts to make sure that historically excluded classes of people, like children, pregnant women, or patients with liver disease, can gain access to “investigational” drugs that have not been approved for marketing. The agency has met with stakeholders, reported on its meetings, and issued guidance on cancer drugs and on clinical trials more generally.

FDA issued four new draft guidance documents and one finalized guidance document in March 2019, aimed at expanding eligibility for cancer drug trials. Collectively, the guidance recommends that manufacturers attempt to include certain patient populations that have typically been excluded from participation, including children and adolescents; patients with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus; patients with brain cancer; and patients with kidney, heart, or liver diseases. Rather than excluding these patients outright, FDA’s new guidance recommends ways to safely include them in trials, such as allowing testing on HIV-positive patients if they have not had an AIDS-defining infection within the past 12 months.

The FDA has more recently issued draft guidance that goes beyond cancer trials, recommending in June that manufacturers examine whether exclusion criteria are necessary to ensure safety or to achieve the study’s objectives, and avoid any unnecessary restrictions to a study’s population.

Despite the FDA’s efforts, drug manufacturers have not generally moved to expand eligibility for clinical trials. Only two out of ten surveyed by the GAO indicated that they had broadened their clinical trial eligibility criteria or intended to do so, while other drug manufacturers said that they had tried other ways to expand access to trials, such as reimbursing travel and hotel costs, or taking advantage of decentralized trials that took place in retail health clinics and patients’ homes, according to the report.

Beyond clinical trials, patients can also request access to investigative drugs through the FDA’s expanded access program or the federal Right to Try Act, and the FDA is taking steps to raise awareness about those programs. While the FDA has tried to use both programs to increase access to investigative drugs, it can only go so far, since neither program compels drug makers to provide access outside of a clinical trial.

The GAO received mixed feedback on the FDA’s program. Some physician and patient advocacy groups criticized it as too complex and burdensome, while others pointed out that the FDA approves most requests—99 percent in 2017—and that manufacturer’s approval is a bigger factor in preventing patient access.

The FDA has tried to simplify and improve the expanded access process, simplifying forms and enlisting an outside partner to help physicians and patients find drug manufacturers’ expanded access policies, according to the report. The FDA has also started a pilot program to assist oncologists with requests for investigative drugs, and created a streamlined process for institutional review board approval, both of which have been well-received by stakeholders.

The newer Right to Try Act also received mixed reviews in the GAO’s study, with some physicians and medical ethicists questioning whether the program, which eliminates FDA review, could compromise patient safety without solving the more common obstacle to improving access, which is manufacturers’ cooperation.

Drug manufacturers remain skittish about the FDA’s handling of adverse events that occur under the FDA’s expanded access program, despite recent guidance saying that such events have not prevented FDA from approving any drug. Two out of ten drug manufacturers said that recent the FDA guidance did not quell their concerns, and four in ten said that manufacturers’ concerns about the issue “may never be fully resolved.” FDA officials, for their part, told the GAO that data from the expanded access program has been commonly used to support drug approvals, and only very rarely has led to a clinical hold.

The GAO also tracked drug makers’ efforts to communicate with patients about access to investigative drugs, finding that 23 of 29 manufacturers surveyed communicated their position to potential patients. Nineteen said they would consider requests for investigational drugs outside of clinical trials, while four said they would not consider requests, with two citing safety concerns. Most of the manufacturers willing to accept requests included an estimated time frame for responses, and five mentioned specific drugs for which they would consider requests.

U.S. pays nearly twice as much for drugs compared to other countries

A recent HHS analysis revealed that prices charged by drug manufacturers to wholesalers and distributors in the United States are 1.8 times higher than in other countries for the top drugs by total expenditures separately paid under Medicare Part B. U.S. prices were higher for most of the drugs included in the analysis, and U.S. prices were more likely to be the highest prices paid among the countries in the study (ASPE Report, October 25, 2018).

Medicare Part B

Drugs typically administered to patients by healthcare practitioners are covered and paid under Medicare Part B, which is part of the fee for service traditional Medicare benefit. Under Part B, providers buy and bill for these drugs. Medicare pays suppliers and providers based upon the Average Sales Price (ASP) for each product, as reported by manufacturers to CMS. Physician offices that buy and bill Part B drugs are paid 106 percent of the drug’s ASP, and hospitals are reimbursed either at 106 percent or 77.5 percent of ASP, depending on the hospital outpatient department’s participation in a safety net drug pricing program. Spending on Part B drugs has doubled since 2006.

The analysis and results

Data was compiled on the top drugs based on total Medicare reimbursement to either physician offices, hospital outpatient departments, or overall under Medicare Part B in 2016. Countries included in the analysis included: the United States, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The analysis identified thirty two Medicare Part B drugs among the top twenty drugs in spending for each setting. These thirty two drugs accounted for $18 billion in spending, out of a total $27 billion on Part B drugs across these settings. The main analysis reports on twenty seven Part B Drugs.

Across the twenty seven drugs in the study, the U.S. ex-manufacturer prices were 1.8 times than average international ex-manufacturer price. There was not any one country that consistently had the highest or lowest prices compared to the U.S. for twenty of the drug products; U.S. prices exceeded the average international price by more than twenty percent. In addition, for nineteen of the twenty seven products the U.S. prices were higher than any other country. Excluding the U.S., Germany and Canada had the highest prices for six drugs and Japan for five drugs. France and the United Kingdom had the lowest prices for four drug products. Japan, Sweden and Slovakia had the lowest prices for three drug products each. Finally, the analysis calculated that the Medicare program and its beneficiaries spent an additional $8.1 billion (47 percent more) on these twenty seven products that it would have, if payments based upon ASP were scaled by the international price ratios.

Overall, prices and reimbursement rates for Part B drugs are significantly higher for the U.S. providers than purchasers outside the U.S., except for a few outlier cases. The amount by which U.S. prices exceeded those of international comparators varied significantly by product, and there was no clear pattern as to which countries were consistently paying lower prices. The analysis suggests that Medicare Part B could achieve significant savings if prices in the U.S. were similar to those of other large market based economies.

Draft guidance seeks to make drug labels clear, concise, more consistent

In an effort to assist applicants in writing the Indications and Usage section of labeling for human prescription drug and biological products, the FDA issued a new draft guidance. The FDA’s intent is to make information in prescription drug labeling easier for health care practitioners to access, read, and use. The goal of the guidance is to help ensure that the labeling is clear, concise, useful, and informative and, to the extent possible, consistent in content and format within and across drug and therapeutic classes (Notice, 83 FR 31759, July 9, 2018).

Indications

The Indications and Usage section should clearly communicate the scope of the approved indication, including the population to which the determination of safety and effectiveness is applicable. The guidance includes information on how and when evidence may support approval of an indication that is broader or narrower in scope than the precise population studied.

The indication should begin “Drug X is indicated” and be followed by the disease, condition, or manifestation of the cease or condition being treated, prevented, mitigated, cured, or diagnosed, and when applicable other information necessary to describe the approved indication. The other information may include selected patient subgroups or disease sub populations for whom the drug is approved, adjunctive or concomitant therapy or therapeutic modalities to use before initiation drug therapy, or specific tests needed to select patients in whom to use the drug.

Limitations of use

Limitations of use should be presented separately from the indication and should only be included when the awareness of such information is important for practitioners to ensure the safe and effective use of the drug. Limitations of Use are appropriate for drugs for which there is reasonable concern or uncertainty about effectiveness or safety in a certain clinical situation, drugs approved without evidence of benefits known to occur with other drugs in the same class, or drugs with dose, duration, or long-term use considerations.

Language

Certain products have statutory or regulatory required or recommended language for the Indications and Usage section. The guidance includes preferred wording and wording to generally avoid. For example, the guidance explains why it is better to use the phrase “reduce the risk” or “reduce incidence of” rather than using “prevent” in the indication. It also discusses when the terms “only” and “also indicated” should be avoided. Finally, product should be identified by the proprietary name or trade name if it has one, and other information such as the dosage form, and route of administration should not be included in the indication.

 

Prescription drug spending in U.S. among highest worldwide

Prescription drug spending in the United States exceeds spending in nine other high income countries, with generic drugs comprising 84 percent of the total pharmaceutical market. Besides the U.S., a Commonwealth Fund issue brief looked at prescription drug spending in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Prescription drug spending in U.S. increases in 1990s

According to the Commonwealth Fund review, spending on prescriptions drugs increased substantially in the mid-1990s due largely to the growth of the pharmaceutical industry. For instance, FDA approved drugs were at an all-time high and sales of cancer drugs increased. Additionally, drug spending increased due to the expansion of federal programs such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, and Medicare.

Prescription drug spending increased by 20 percent over a period of two years during the mid-2000s. The growth was primarily due to introducing many expensive specialty drugs to treat hepatitis C, cystic fibrosis and other conditions. Passage of the Affordable Care Act likely led to such increases as well. U.S. spending on pharmaceuticals surpassed $1,000 per person in 2015 and was 30 percent to 190 percent higher than in the nine other countries. The next countries, behind the U.S., in spending in 2015 were Switzerland with $783, Germany with $686, and Canada with $669.

Reasons U.S. spending on prescription drugs is so high

The Commonwealth Fund offered possible reasons to explain why the U.S. spends so much on prescription drugs, including country population and volume of drugs consumed, drug utilization per person, type and mix of drugs consumed (e.g., generics versus brand-name drugs), and prices at which drugs are sold.

Although the U.S. population is ranked among the largest and has the highest prescription drug spending as a country, spending per capita remains much higher in the U.S. than that of other countries. Higher per person spending is not due to the large population of the U.S., however.

The impact of generic prescription drugs

Generic drugs make up 84 percent of the total U.S. pharmaceutical market, which is a larger share than in all other countries, excluding the U.K., which is tied with the U.S. with 84 percent. Followed by the U.S. are Germany with 81 percent, Netherlands with 71 percent and Canada with 70 percent of the share of generic prescription drugs. Lower prescription drug prices in the other countries reflect more centralized processes for obtaining pharmaceuticals and setting coverage.

Conclusion. Price continues to play a primary factor in the high prices associated with prescription drugs in the U.S. The reasons can be attributed to the fragmented nature of health care delivery and payment, as well as separate negotiation arrangements between drug manufacturers and payers and complicated arrangements for federal and state health programs. Also, the U.S., unlike other countries, allows for greater latitude for monopoly pricing of brand name drugs.