Are Profits Compounding the Public Health Danger of Compounded Drugs?

  • by: Robert Goldberg |
  • 10/08/2019

Last week, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles arrested 53 people for raking in $150 million in Medicare and Medicaid payments for medically unnecessary compounded drugs. In cooperation with a large L.A. based compounding pharmacy --Fusion Rx  -- the doctors to bill health care providers for those compounded drugs, many of which were reimbursed at rates much higher than common medications. 
Doing this enabled the pharmacies to boost the reimbursement rates for the prescriptions and routinely waive patient copayment obligations.  FusionRx is one of many compounding pharmacies that are endangering patient lives by driving up the cost of prescription drugs.
It's no surprise that few people are familiar with compounding pharmacies, purely because the altered medications account for less than one percent of prescriptions. However, as the DOJ suit notes, the price of compounded drugs has surged by as much as 3,400 percent since 2006.  Despite legislative efforts to strengthen oversight of compounding pharmacies, their production and distribution are still mostly unregulated. This is not the time to ease up on federal oversight of compounding drugs. 
Compounding – the combining of two or more ingredients to produce a medicine for a patient – has been around for centuries, evolving from age-old concoctions into a service that increasingly customizes lifesaving medicines. Most drugs were compounded until large-scale development and manufacturing emerged in the 1950s, allowing companies to bolster their research and development to provide tailored treatments for patients.   
Over the past decade, however, there has been a substantial increase in compounding medications to address the need to customize dosing for patients who would otherwise not benefit from specific treatments. Small compounding pharmacies don't have to get Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for their medicines. This is because Congress exempted compounding pharmacies from FDA oversight in 1998 and handed the responsibility over to state pharmacy boards. 
Traditionally, the bespoke nature of compounding has allowed pharmacies to charge health plans a premium for their products. While no public estimates are available, industry experts believe that the gross margins from compounding products is between 70-87 percent. As the pharmacy benefit management market consolidated around large companies such as Express Scripts and CVS, small specialty drug firms saw their margins squeezed. Compounding provided the opportunity to make more money due to the markups involved, and as a small portion of drug spending, most PBMs and health plans paid for compounded medicines without question. 
Soon it became clear that in the absence of FDA regulation, a compounding pharmacy could produce large commercial quantities of medicines and ship them anywhere in the United States. Around 2010, private equity groups invested in several compounding pharmacies to increase capacity. 
It didn't take long for small compounding companies to become large companies, pumping out mass quantities of medicines originally meant for single patients. As noted, Medicare Part D spending skyrocketed for topical compounded drugs-such as creams, gels, and ointments to relieve pain. Most of the increase in spending is a result of expenditures for pain medications, including opioid-based medicines and steroids. 
In 2004, TRICARE – the Department of Defense's health system – spent approximately $5 million for compounded prescriptions. By 2010, the cost had risen to $23 million. In the first nine months of 2015, TRICARE paid $1.7 billion for compounded drugs. Shockingly, this is over 20 percent of TRICARE's total prescription budget. The average cost of a compounded drug is now $2,595, with some drugs costing as much as $40,000 per prescription.
As noted, FusionRx is just one of several criminal cases the DOJ is pursuing against compounder.  For example,  the owners of Parks and Lee compounding pharmacy are accused of paying kickbacks and bribes to physicians to get them to write prescriptions to their pharmacies. After the prescriptions were written and carried out, the defendants allegedly submitted huge claims for payment to federal health care programs – dividing the profits.
In 2013, The Drug Quality and Security Act (H.R. 3204) was passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama on November 27, 2013. Since that time, the FDA has made significant steps for heightened enforcement and site inspections of compounders, shutting some facilities down and helping others correct public health threats. The 2013 Act gave the FDA control over the quantity of compounded drugs that could be shipped or sold across state lines.  Proposed regulations for doing so were not finalized until May of this year. 
The proposed regulations continue to exempt compounded drug products from demonstrating to the FDA that they are safely and effectively manufactured.  However, the compounder must agree to limit intrastate distribution to 50 percent of total prescriptions or less. If not, then the amount of out of state sales drops to 5 percent. 
The compounding industry opposes these generous limits and declares them as anti-patient. But, as the FDA notes, Congress did not intend for compounding pharmacies to grow into conventional manufacturing operations that can make and sell large quantities of unregulated medicines. 
Though steps have been taken to instigate proper oversight, compounded drugs are still laced with containments and corruption. The FDA's proposed regulations increase transparency and accountability. The failure to adopt these modest requirements suggests that compounding pharmacies are more interested in their profits than in public health.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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