Azar assures HIV patients ‘protected class’ proposal won’t cut off access to drugs

Drugs prescription pad
HHS Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday the agency would ensure new Part D proposals don't cut off access to life-saving drugs. (Getty/LIgorko)

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar assured the HIV community on Tuesday that new proposals around Medicare Part D would not cut off critical access to lifesaving medications.

In a speech at the 2018 National Ryan White Conference on HIV Care and Treatment in Maryland, Azar said the administration’s recent proposal to allow Medicare Part D plans to negotiated better prices for drugs in “protected class,” would not limit access to antiretrovirals used to treat HIV.

“We put forth our proposal because we want to expand patient access to antiretrovirals and other expensive drugs, by driving down prices,” he said. “If, for instance, prior authorization requirements are getting in the way of take-up or adherence to HIV treatment, that would be of great concern to us.”

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Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma announced the proposal in a speech last month. The new policy would allow insurers to exclude certain “protected” drugs from formularies if price increases outpace inflation, and implement step therapy to—a point of contention between insurers and providers.

RELATED: Patient groups decry Medicare Part D proposal, saying it will restrict critical access

Patient groups quickly pushed back on the proposal, arguing that it could impact restrict transplant patients or those with HIV.

Azar lamented the current drug pricing system that is “set up quite poorly to protect Americans with high drug costs.” He specifically called out the use of large rebates that bring down overall premiums but don’t help the highest-cost patients with burdensome coinsurance.

“We believe the strong patient protections in Part D will help everyone get access to the drugs that are right for them at a lower cost, but we want your input on how that should work,” he said.

Azar announced that HHS is making new supplemental funding available for HIV research through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He said new HIV infections are disproportionately concentrated in areas of the South, and said new funding would focus on public health departments across that region of the country.

He also chose two co-chairs for the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS: Carl Schmid and John Wiesman. Schmid serves as deputy executive director of The AIDS Institute. Wiesman is secretary of health for Washington state and past president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers.

Azar said he hopes researchers can answer questions about access to antiretrovirals and pre-exposure prophylaxis within a year or two.

“For those of you with a biomedical or social science background, you know that’s pretty much light speed,” he said.

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