PHARMACY

Sweeping healthcare overhaul becomes law

BY Jim Frederick

WASHINGTON Capping a tumultuous, yearlong battle that came to define both his presidency and the increasingly polarized clash of ideologies between Democrats and Republicans, President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed into law the most sweeping reform of the nation’s healthcare system in more than four decades.

In a packed and jubilant ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the president vowed “to get this right” as the massive health reform legislation passed Sunday by the House of Representatives becomes the law of the land. Obama was clearly buoyed by passage of major health reform legislation, which has eluded U.S. presidents from the time of Teddy Roosevelt.

“Today, after almost a century of trying; today, after over a year of debate; today, after all the votes have been tallied, health insurance reform becomes law in the United States of America,” Obama told a boisterous roomful of supporters, including all 219 members of the House who voted to pass the bill Sunday. “The bill I am signing will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for and marched for and hungered to see.”

Obama added that it was time to replace “the overheated rhetoric” that has characterized the healthcare debate with “the reality of reform.”

The East Room signing event mirrored the bitter divide between the parties that has characterized the health reform debate since early last year. No Republicans voted for the House bill, and none were in attendance at today’s signing. Nor were Democrats who didn’t support the measure.

The reform package will have profound effects on the healthcare marketplace, and opponents have already vowed to challenge its constitutionality in court. Among its effects, it will expand health insurance benefits to an estimated 32 million uninsured Americans; prevent insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions; and provide for creation of a national “health exchange” through which Americans can shop for lower-cost insurance. Over the next few years, the law will also mandate that all Americans buy insurance and that most employers provide coverage; subsidies, tax credits and other incentives will help defray the cost of that coverage for lower-income Americans and small employers.

Another provision will allow parents to keep their children on their family insurance policies until age 26.

To defray the costs of the health overhaul, the law establishes new cuts in Medicare fee-for-service payments and new taxes on “premium” health insurance plans from employers.

For pharmacy retailers, the House bill retains some key pharmacy-friendly elements long sought by the industry. Among those provisions: a higher payment formula for Medicaid prescriptions, an end to some recently imposed curbs on the sale of durable medical equipment and diabetic supplies by retail pharmacies, and new transparency requirements on pharmacy benefit management companies. The bill would also fund a series of pilot programs to demonstrate the viability of medication therapy management by pharmacists, as well as improvements to the Medicare Part D MTM benefit.

For more on the healthcare-reform bill see:Health reform draws pharma’s support, but alarm from insurance industryHealth-reform bill passes in the House, NACDS and NCPA express support for pharmacy provisionsPhRMA, BIO, GPhA weigh in on healthcare-reform bill passage 

The Senate is slated to begin debate today on a bill to reconcile the House bill already signed into law with a Senate health reform measure.

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PHARMACY

Safeway launches Safeway Health

BY Allison Cerra

WASHINGTON Safeway is looking to expand its health plan initiative with the introduction of additional incentive-based programs.

Safeway Health, a new subsidiary of the grocery chain, will provide an incentive plan that includes such features as “greater transparency of provider and drug pricing,” said Ken Shachmut, Safeway SVP and EVP of Safeway Health.“Existing healthcare players are not well equipped to deliver the Safeway results.”

Safeway Health will provide analytics, plan design or redesign assistance, Shachmut said during a keynote address in Washington at the Business Health Agenda 2010 sponsored by the National Business Group on Health. As compensation, Safeway Health receives 25% of the savings generated over a five-year period, according to a Business Insurance report.

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Merck responds to FDA warning of simvastatin use

BY Alaric DeArment

WHITEHOUSE STATION, N.J. Merck & Co. has responded to a warning by the Food and Drug Administration about potential safety risks in patients taking the highest dose of a drug used to lower cholesterol.

“Simvastatin, when used as a supplement to a healthy diet, can help reduce LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of death form cardiovascular disease in patients at high risk of coronary events,” Merck chief medical officer Michael Rosenblatt said in a statement. “We support the FDA’s recommendation that patients continue their medication as prescribed by their physicians and that patients speak to their physician if they have symptoms or questions.”

The FDA warned patients and healthcare professionals Friday of the risk of muscle injury, also known as myopathy, in patients taking simvastatin in the 80-mg strength. Though muscle injury is a side effect common among all statins, the agency said patients taking higher doses of simvastatin run a higher risk. Of particular concern is the risk of rhabdomyolysis, a severe form of myopathy that can lead to kidney damage, kidney failure and sometimes death.

Merck originally marketed the drug under the brand name Zocor, though it now is available as a generic and is included as an active ingredient in several drugs, including Merck’s Vytorin (ezetimibe and simvastatin) and Simcor (niacin and simvastatin), marketed by Abbott and Solvay Pharmaceuticals. Vytorin is available with 80 mg of simvastatin, though Simcor is only available with 20 mg.

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