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Welch Offers Help With Drug Prices, Telemedicine

July 07, 2017

Story by Robin Smith and printed in the Caledonian Record. 

NEWPORT CITY — Local health officials told U.S. Congressman Peter Welch Thursday afternoon that his bipartisan efforts on several bills in Washington, D.C., will save millions of dollars for North Country Hospital alone.

Welch, D-Vt., is working on two bills that, although small compared to the massive health care bill now before the U.S. Senate, would benefit rural hospitals and communities nationwide.

One bill promotes “telemedicine,” where health care specialists in one hospital can communicate with patients and caregivers in another facility face-to-face via secure computers.

The other addresses the high prices of certain medicines called orphan drugs that are used not only for rare conditions but also have been found to be effective in other areas.

Michael Omar, director of pharmacy services at NCH, said the high costs of orphan drugs that are used in cancer treatments cost NCH $1 million in the last year and was an incentive in the closing of the cancer clinic at NCH.

“That’s real money here,” Welch said.

Pharmaceutical companies are allowed to charge higher prices for specialty or “orphan” drugs that are used for rare conditions, since otherwise there would be no incentive to make the drug.
But in a loophole in a program called 340B that otherwise benefits rural hospitals, drug companies are charging the same high rate if that drug is found to be effective in other areas.

The bipartisan bill would close that loop hole.

Telemedicine is an obvious benefit in Vermont, Welch said.

“This is a real opportunity to extend your range of services.” 

Jeff Tieman, president and CEO of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, said the closing of the orphan drug loophole is essential for rural hospitals.

Telemedicine is “incredibly promising” here and picking up steam, he said.

NCH partners with Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center for telemedicine.

He introduced Dr. Timothy Lukovits, a neurologist who appeared at NCH via computer monitor. He talked to those gathered about how effective it is for him to see a potential stroke patient at NCH via the technology.

Dr. Lukovits said it works really well with stroke and neurological patients who otherwise might have to be sent by helicopter to DHMC for initial screening. He can talk to the patient, family members and local nurses about a patient’s history, what happened and conditions and make a decision about treatment long distance.

The doctor can do this from his home as well, seeing patients long-distance when they need his services.

NCH is working to get the teleneurology program up and running in the next several months with DHMC, according to DHMC’s Colleen Harrington, a nurse in charge of telemedicine.

Welch said he can find bipartisan support among Republican congressmen for bills like these because they all have hospitals and clinics back home that are in the same situation as NCH.

It’s at the broader philosophical level that the conversation becomes more about the role of government in health care, he said.

As for what’s happening in Washington, D.C. about health care, Welch said that the current big bill in the Senate is more about cutting taxes than improving health care.

The debate over repealing and replacing the American Care Act, called Obamacare, is holding back bills like his to improve parts of the health care industry.

He believes the repeal effort will fail because so many senators and congressmen have hospitals back home that are dependent on the current health care system.

Welch is hoping that Republican governors and senators will decide to work together with Democrats to improve health care because they know the impact of just repealing it.