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Medicare, Medicaid make long-awaited updates to drug price dashboard

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made some long-awaited updates to the agency's online databases that provide Americans information about the government's spending on prescription drugs — changes Democrats said were long overdue.

The drug spending dashboards allow patients, clinicians, researchers, journalists, nonprofit groups and others to monitor and better understand trends in drug prices and spending by Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare is the federal government's insurance program for seniors and the disabled, while Medicaid covers the poor.

The newly added 2016 data showed that some of the most commonly used drugs covered by those programs saw double-digit annual increases over the last few years, according to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, which oversees the databases.

In 2012, Medicare spent 17% of its total budget, or $109 billion, on prescription drugs. But four years later, spending had increased to 23%, or $174 billion.

Medicare and Medicaid spent $39 billion in 2016 on 15 drugs alone, according to the updates.

One drug that saw significant growth in spending by the Medicare Part B program, which covers prescription medicines administered in physician's office or outpatient clinics, was Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s rheumatoid arthritis product Orencia, which grew by 17.2% from 2012 to 2016.

There were a number of medicines in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program whose spending jumped more than 10% during those four years — with Sanofi kidney disease product Renvela topping them all, climbing 22%.

Likewise for Medicaid, drugs like Pfizer Inc.'s fibromyalgia medicine Lyrica, Sunovion Pharma's depression product Latuda and Sanofi's long-acting insulin Lantus saw nearly 20% growth.

Why the wait?

The original dashboards were created during the Obama administration. But after President Donald Trump took office, the databases remained stagnant.

In an April 6 letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the failure to update the dashboards "raises questions about this administration's supposed commitment to lowering the price of prescription drugs for the American people."

He noted that the dashboards are typically updated each November with data from the preceding calendar year.

Pallone demanded that Verma explain why the Trump administration had failed to update the drug spending dashboards with 2016 data, given it was now well into 2018.

He wanted to know whether CMS employees were instructed not to proceed with updating the databases and if any of the staff had expressed concern over the matter.

Pallone called for Verma to provide copies of communications between CMS managers and employees and any outside advocacy or lobbying organizations about updating the data.

First time?

New to the database is information showing which manufacturers have been increasing their prices, CMS said in a May 15 statement.

However, Verma said on Twitter and at a forum hosted by The Washington Post that the revisions to the dashboards that she oversaw included for the "first time" year-over-year drug pricing information — a claim a former Obama administration official, who oversaw the design and creation of the databases, said was inaccurate.

"Congrats on the new dashboard and on including more drugs, said Niall Brennan, who was appointed CMS' first-ever chief data officer in 2014 under the Obama administration. "But to say that year-over-year price changes are available for the first time is false," he wrote on Twitter.

Brennan said the data were included in the previous dashboards.

A CMS spokesman tried to clarify Verma's remarks and tweet, telling S&P Global Market Intelligence that what was new was the combination of the year-over-year information on drug pricing with the information about which manufacturers had been increasing their prices.

Former CMS chief Andy Slavitt, who led the agency during the last two years of the Obama administration, said he was "just happy they're continuing it."

The "great work" on the dashboards goes to CMS, which "deserve all the credit," Slavitt tweeted.

Also on May 15, CMS updated the Medicare Part D prescriber public use file with data for 2016 summarizing information on the more than 1 million distinct healthcare providers who prescribed drugs under the program.

The information enables a range of analyses to be performed on prescribing trends in Part D, according to CMS.