Wednesday, December 16, 2020

California's New Task: A $155 Million Drive to Make Stem Cell Therapies Affordable and Accessible

The enormous cost of stem cell therapies is 
a fresh target for CIRM. 

Proposition 14
, California's $5.5 billion stem cell ballot initiative, is coming home to roost, so to speak. 

Next Monday, the governing board of the state stem cell agency is scheduled to begin to settle in under the new measure, which does much more than save the agency's financial life. 

One of the agency's biggest, new challenges involves the accessibility and affordability of the staggering expense of potential stem cell therapies. On the agenda is the creation of a legally mandated "working group" to deal with the treatment cost issues. 

Details of the proposed appointments to the group and its initial steps are not yet available from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. But the 17,000-word Proposition 14 has plenty to say about the new program. Here is a rundown drawn from my new book, "California's Great Stem Cell Experiment," which deals with the first 16 years of the agency's life, policies and financial times. 

"The new playing field for CIRM encompasses particularly critical areas of costs to patients and profits for companies. Stem cell therapies are expected to be enormously expensive — $1 million or more in many cases. That’s a figure that makes health insurance companies balk and Medicare blanch.

"Proposition 14 would launch a hefty effort to make stem cell therapies more affordable and accessible. The cash behind that drive could run as high as $155 million. And that’s not necessarily going for patients.

"The intent is to create and build support for financial models for health insurance companies. CIRM would also be charged with helping to implement them. Such models would justify the cost of the theoretically one-time cures by demonstrating that they would actually save money — ending the need to treat patients in what currently seems to be an endless and expensive cycle.

"Proposition 14 speaks of covering patients and, importantly, their caregivers for medical expenses, lodging, meals and travel. That would help provide access to clinical trials that are located in prohibitively expensive urban areas, which poses financial barriers for persons who live some distance away. The added coverage would additionally help researchers and companies recruit enough trial participants, which can be a problem in some disease areas.

"The affordability panel would be permitted to operate behind closed doors as it considers the problems and weighs the solutions.

"The extraordinary cost of stem cell treatments involves something called 'reimbursement,' a biomedical industry euphemism for how companies cover the high costs of the research and still make a profit. If money is not to be made, businesses are not likely to be motivated to turn CIRM research into cures.

"Proposition 14 creates a 17-member, CIRM affordability committee to drive all this. It would work with industry and the federal government to win their support. The committee would be backed by as many as 15 CIRM staffers. The ballot allows as much as $55 million for their compensation over 10 or so years.

"But if 15 is not enough, more employees could be hired beyond the nominal cap on CIRM employees of 70 if they are compensated through the use of private cash.

"The measure additionally allows the new affordability panel to hire consultants, capping that expense at about $105 million.

"The affordability effort involves important public policy, industry and research issues that concern patient groups and industry. However, the affordability panel would be permitted to operate behind closed doors as it considers the problems and weighs the solutions.

"Votes by the committee, however, would have to be taken in public.

"Members of the panel would not be required to disclose publicly their economic or professional interests. The committee would be exempt from the state public records act except for material specifically submitted to the CIRM board."

The day-long meeting is open to the public, including scientists, who can also comment and ask questions. Comments are limited to three minutes. Lengthier comments should be emailed to the board via this address:

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