Walgreens expands specialty pharmacy business to gene and cell therapy services

Walgreens is expanding its specialty pharmacy services to offer gene and cell therapy services, supported by a dedicated 18,000-square-foot center in Pittsburgh, the company announced Thursday.

The service is part of the retail pharmacy company's newly integrated business unit, Walgreens Specialty Pharmacy, that rolls up all its specialty pharmacy segment assets, including AllianceRx. The new business, formerly called AllianceRx Walgreens Pharmacy, is under the Walgreens U.S. retail pharmacy segment.

Walgreens said its integrated model enables it to work with payers, health plans and pharma with a specialty pharmacy offering independent of pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs).

Shields will remain under the U.S. healthcare segment and will continue supporting health systems specialty pharmacies, the company said. 

It's Walgreens' latest move to leverage its neighborhood pharmacies into fast-growing areas of healthcare, including innovative gene therapies.

The company unveiled a new gene and cell services pharmacy and innovation center in Pittsburgh with services and capabilities for emerging therapies, including solutions for managing the complexity of the supply chain, logistics and financing as well as clinical and social needs management, the company said.

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two breakthrough gene therapies for sickle cell disease. Casgevy, developed by partners Vertex Pharmaceuticals and CRISPR Therapeutics, and bluebird bio's Lyfgenia were approved for people aged 12 years and older.

Gene therapies are an emerging type of treatment aiming to correct genes responsible for rare hereditary diseases. The FDA has approved treatments for certain types of cancer and a rare inherited eye condition with more therapies coming. 

In January, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rolled out a new Cell and Gene Therapy Access Model to negotiate an outcomes-based agreement with select manufacturers to improve outcomes for low-income people on Medicaid coverage.

Walgreens says its specially pharmacy business has a growing roster of 240 limited distribution drugs, including 40 narrow networks and 12 exclusive limited distribution drugs.

Walgreens Specialty Pharmacy's assets also include four central specialty pharmacies where pharmacists and care teams collaborate to dispense highly complex medications and help patients manage chronic or rare diseases and conditions. 

The company also says it has nearly 300 community-based specialty pharmacies across the country. "These specialty pharmacies are strategically located near medical office buildings and health systems, closely aligning care provision with local physicians, offering patients access to specialty medications faster than the industry average, as well as services like injection training, medication side-effect management and financial assistance coordination for medications," company executives said in a press release.

Walgreens' specialty pharmacy services also offers more than 1,500 specialty-trained pharmacists, 5,000 patient advocacy support team members and Specialty360 teams that support all specialty conditions and therapies, the company said.

The company says its model enables more comprehensive care to help payers better manage specialty drug costs. 

Specialty medications today account for more than 50% of prescription drug spend in the U.S., according to federal data.

Walgreens says its specialty pharmacy service enables patient access to specialized treatments through a newly formed integrated care model, driving cost savings and efficiencies in care by uniting the company’s pharmacy teams and distribution network across providers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, health plans and payers.  

Rick Gates, chief pharmacy officer at Walgreens, says the business brings in about $24 billion in annual enterprise specialty revenue for the company and is the largest independent provider offering "robust specialty capabilities not vertically aligned with a pharmacy benefit manager."

"We have the flexibility to contract dynamically with any payer. We can partner directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers to facilitate products to market, including limited distribution drugs, and coordinate closely with providers to ensure patients experience a smooth start to treatment," Gates said.

Walgreens executives said the launch of its specialty pharmacy is the latest initiative aimed at expanding the role its pharmacy teams play in patients’ lives and bringing their clinical expertise to help payers, providers, pharmaceutical manufacturers and partners deliver critical healthcare.

“When a patient must confront a life-changing, serious health challenge and begins therapy for a chronic or complex condition, our pharmacists are right there to guide and care for them throughout their healthcare journey —from helping them order and take their medication to identifying financial assistance opportunities and working with their doctor and insurance plan to make sure they’re receiving the most coordinated care,” Gates said in a statement.