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Editor’s take – Health care and life sciences: COVID-19 vaccine rollout, health care costs and a new administration

The reading habits of SmartBrief's health care and life sciences audiences provide a unique window into the priorities and interests of professionals across these industries, and our newsletter engagement data also sheds light on what's keeping our readers up at night. We serve health care insurers, providers and IT professionals, as well as audiences in pharma and medtech. Here's what was top of mind for all of them in Q4, as well as a look at what's next.

Rollout of COVID-19 vaccines begins as health care system buckles

The fourth quarter of 2020, saw the rollout of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine after receiving emergency use authorization, with the first inoculations going to health care workers. In December, the US government ordered an additional 100 million doses, bringing the total to 200 million with the option to purchase up to 400 million additional doses.

Meanwhile, McKesson began shipping Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine after it became the second to receive an EUA from the FDA. The US government had pre-ordered 100 million doses prior to its approval and said in December that it would purchase an additional 100 million doses.

What’s next: 2021 will see the continued distribution of vaccines, the effects of new viral variants and the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the health care workforce and the delivery of care. The next several months are expected to be the most difficult of the pandemic, outgoing CDC Director Robert Redfield said. The vast majority of US hospitals are in COVID-19 hot zones, and hospitals across the country have been struggling with staff shortages. As the pandemic rages, physicians across the country have closed their practices, and thousands of health care professionals have left the field.

In brighter news, Johnson & Johnson has fully enrolled the late-stage trials for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which has the potential to be given in one injection, and AstraZeneca is also developing a vaccine with the University of Oxford. Manufacturers have said their vaccines should be effective against the new COVID-19 variant first detected in the UK, but testing continues.

Health care costs still in the spotlight

In a divisive political environment, drug pricing remained a hot-button issue, with life sciences trade organizations suing the Trump administration over its drug pricing rule, which would tie Medicare payments for some drugs to the lowest price paid by certain other countries. In late December, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking the most-favored-nation drug-pricing rule from taking effect in January.

The fourth quarter also saw animosity, and legal action, toward Big Pharma over drug prices, with House hearings looking into the results of a pharma profits probe that found major drugmakers significantly raised the prices of their products to boost profits and inflate executives’ bonuses. The health insurance industry got on the bandwagon, blaming lack of price controls for high drug prices as it pushed back against a final rule targeting drug rebates in Medicare, arguing the policy won’t lower prices.

Meanwhile, the CMS received criticism as it finalized its price transparency rule requiring the disclosure of rates between drugmakers, device makers and health insurance providers. The insurance industry warns the rule could increase prices and decrease competition.

What’s next: Regulators and lawmakers will continue taking steps to improve price transparency and lower health care costs. For example, the CMS started auditing a sample of hospitals in January to check their compliance with the Hospital Price Transparency final rule that requires them to publish payer-negotiated rates for certain services. And a provision addressing unexpected out-of-pocket medical bills was included in the recent COVID-19 relief package, prompting health care industry concerns that it could raise costs and premiums if private-equity firms exploit the arbitration process for payment disputes. Drug pricing rules are likely to keep facing legal challenges and industry objections in the coming months, as lawmakers attempt to usher in significant changes to the status quo.

A new administration

The biggest shakeup of the fourth quarter was arguably the presidential election. Major health care changes could be on the horizon under President Joe Biden’s administration, whose health care agenda includes expanding health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and creating a government-run individual health insurance option.

One of Biden’s first moves as president-elect was announcing a new 12-person COVID-19 task force, led by former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, and saying his pandemic response will include increased testing and contact tracing, additional investments in vaccines and treatment, and other changes.

He is also filling out the roster of top health officials, including picking Jeff Zients as COVID-19 czar, and seeking expert advice such as meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to discuss transition logistics.

What’s next: Biden is expected to maintain a focus on price transparency, and is expected to have a unique opportunity to bring Congress together to reduce health care costs. One proposal from Biden’s team includes an integrated caregiver funding package to cover child care, elder care and in-home health care. However, transformational reforms in health care policy are seen as unlikely, given the tough political climate, experts have said.

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Download our latest Infographic: Beyond COVID-19: 4 Predictions for Health Care in the Wake of the Pandemic

More top news

Check out a snapshot of more top health care and life sciences stories from Q4 below.

April Hollis is custom content editor for health care content at SmartBrief. She edits newsletters focused on life sciences and regulatory news and oversees development of content marketing pieces for SmartBrief’s health care and life sciences clients.