Medicare Part D is saving lives

Print 12 January 2014
Patrick Muraca, News


Cambridge-based Syndax Pharmaceuticals recently received coveted "breakthrough therapy" status for a promising late-stage breast cancer drug. The designation expedites the development and approval of the drug, Entinostat, in the hope of saving more lives sooner. 

Entinostat is only one of thousands of potential breakthrough treatments targeting deadly and debilitating diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's — promising vast health improvements for the nation's burgeoning senior population. 

That's the good news. The better news is that millions of seniors will have affordable access to these treatments thanks to Medicare Part D. 

Since being signed into law in 2003, the drug benefit has been an undisputed success. Part D allows seniors to enjoy healthier and more productive lives, while helping to control health costs, create high-quality jobs, and grow the economy of Massachusetts. On its 10th anniversary, Medicare Part D deserves celebrating. 

Today, more than 29 million seniors nationwide can choose from nearly 1,200 prescription coverage plans. Here in Massachusetts, 635,000 seniors are enrolled in one of 33 available policies. 

Part D plans are offered by private insurers, who must actively vie for seniors' business. The competition has kept costs for both taxpayers and seniors far below what government forecasters initially predicted. Part D is now 45 percent under budget. The average monthly premium in the commonwealth in 2014, $35.85, is up just 1.8 percent from last year. 

Part D makes prescription drugs widely available and encourages the development of new therapies, dramatically improving seniors' overall health. In just the last decade, new treatments for lung cancer, kidney cancer, diabetes, gout, lupus, cystic fibrosis and many others have come onto the market. 

At my firm, Nuclea Biotechnologies, we are pioneering research to develop novel molecular oncology companion diagnostics critical to patient care and disease management. Our HER-2/neu blood test monitors disease progression in women with metastatic breast cancer to determine the appropriate therapy. 

Part D ensures seniors have access to this and other medical breakthroughs without compromising the other necessities of life, even on a limited income. 

Between 2001 and 2011, deaths from heart disease fell by 30 percent. Disability among the elderly has fallen sharply. Life expectancy is on the rise. 

Many seniors are now even working into their retirement years. In fact, the number of elderly Americans who held a job climbed 2.1 million between 2005 — the year before the Part D benefit kicked in — and 2012. Nearly one in five seniors now works at least part of the year. 

Part D is also helping control overall health spending. A Congressional Budget Office report concluded that every one percent increase in the number of prescriptions filled because of Part D will save roughly a half billion dollars elsewhere in Medicare. 

The potential for future savings is profound. There are 5,000 new drugs in development, many of which offer entirely new biological lines of attack on disease. 

Almost 100 target Alzheimer's, a disease that afflicts 120,000 people in Massachusetts and more than 5 million nationwide. Finding a drug that could delay the onset of Alzheimer's would improve the lives of millions and save Medicare and Medicaid $100 billion a year by 2030. 

But creating a medical breakthrough is no small task. 

Research and development expenses hover near $1.2 billion for every new medicine that makes it through the approval process and onto pharmacy shelves. Prescription drug sales through Part D provide the industry with a major source of funding for the discovery of next generation therapies. 

Part D has also been a boom for the Bay State economy, where the biopharmaceutical industry leads the nation. In Massachusetts, more than 27,000 people work in R&D, alone. Over the past decade, industry jobs grew 40 percent. Overall job growth increased just 3.2 percent. 

Nationwide, the industry employs more than 800,000, supporting a total of 3.4 million jobs. 

But despite its many successes, Part D continues to be a target for budget reform in Washington. 

That's a formula for disaster. Cuts to the program will increase drug costs for many seniors, resulting in reduced access and greater expenses in other parts of Medicare. The harm to the economy will be severe. And the loss of a funding source for biopharmaceutical discovery will take an unknowable toll in promising new treatments that never get out of the lab. 

On its 10th anniversary, lawmakers should be celebrating the successes of Medicare Part D, not flirting with ill-considered changes that could undo them. 

Patrick Muraca is president and CEO of Nuclea Biotechnologies, based in Pittsfield. 



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