RADAR on Specialty Pharmacy Article Highlights Specialty Pharmacy Program Partnership

Published 10/14/2019
by Kathryn Edwards

An article in the October 2019 edition of RADAR on Specialty Pharmacy published by AIS Health highlighted North Memorial Health’s successful specialty pharmacy program partnership with Trellis Rx. Read the full article below. 

In-House Specialty Capabilities Can Benefit Health Systems

By Angela Maas of AIS Health

As the specialty pharmacy space continues to grow, more entities within the health care system are boosting their capabilities in this area. Various health systems are implementing some form of a specialty pharmacy, often coordinating this effort through various partnerships. One such example of this is North Memorial Health and Trellis Rx, which began working together in 2018. The two companies spoke with AIS Health about the experience and the outcomes the collaboration has produced.

The Minnesota-based North Memorial Health system includes two hospitals, 26 specialty and primary care clinics, urgent and emergency care offerings and medical transportation services, and has more than 350 care providers and more than 6,000 team members. Trellis Rx, which started in 2016, partners with health systems in order to finance, build and operate specialty pharmacies.

The health system began offering specialty pharmacy services in 2009 though North Memorial Health Cancer Center. A patient advocate was placed in the clinic with a goal of providing support, including financial assistance, to patients requiring intravenous chemotherapy. That focus eventually expanded to include oral oncolytics, explains Paul Krogh, Pharm.D., system director of pharmacy services and infectious diseases at North Memorial Health.

Another person was added in 2015 to help support customers on additional specialty drugs. This expansion, he says, was because “many of our customers struggled to afford these therapies, and our providers spent numerous hours on prior authorizations and other required paperwork. Adding another financial advocate allowed us to provide comprehensive support to patients prescribed IV and oral oncolytics.”

Other specialists began asking for similar support, Krogh tells AIS Health, but “unfortunately, we didn’t have the capacity to extend services to other customers at the time.”

That same year, the health system began serving its employees taking specialty drugs through its retail pharmacies. “We became the preferred specialty pharmacy for our employees in May and captured 72% of these prescriptions within just six months,” he says.

Prior to the partnership, North Memorial Health served its cancer patients and employees via three on-site retail pharmacies, supplementing them with 340B contract pharmacies for limited-distribution drugs.

In November 2018, North Memorial Health unveiled its partnership with Trellis Rx. Initially available within the oncology and infectious disease spaces, the model expanded the existing offering to include “direct, in-clinic access to pharmacists and patient liaisons” to help with the coordination, education and support of people on specialty drugs. It also helps acquire insurance authorization and locate financial assistance.

Trellis Rx provided an experienced team to work in North Memorial Health clinics, including a program manager who oversees day-to-day operations. It also integrated a specialty pharmacy technology solution with the health system’s electronic health record system and “implement[ed] customized strategies to gain access to payer networks and limited-distribution drugs,” says Krogh, which previously had been “a major challenge.” Trellis Rx, he says, helped the system quickly gain access to five limited-distribution drugs. “Their support was also pivotal to us gaining access to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota this fall.” In addition, Krogh states, Trellis Rx shifted “all financial and operational risk away from us: They offer a 100% performance-based business model that aligns their incentives to ours and greatly reduces our related operating expenses.”

Model Has Expanded Since Its Start

“Partnering with Trellis Rx has allowed us to rapidly extend high-touch, personalized specialty pharmacy services to more customers who require these therapies to manage chronic and complex conditions,” says Krogh. Since its start, the model has expanded to four clinics and added six on-site specialty pharmacy team members. “In our first 10 months, we supported over 600 patients and grew specialty pharmacy revenue by almost 100%,” he says. “Most importantly, we have addressed many barriers to medication access and adherence. As of August, we have connected patients with over $600,000 of financial assistance and reduced turnaround time from around 14 days to just 1.9 days.”

Other outcomes based on data from November 2018 through August 2019 include:

  • 98% average adherence based on proportion of days covered.
  • 100% hepatitis C treatment completion rate.
  • 127% improvement in the Net Promoter Score, which measures people’s willingness to recommend a company’s services, from -62 to +65.

“We attribute these results to Trellis Rx’s fully integrated model,” says Krogh. Critical to the health system’s success, he contends, are the on-site program manager, pharmacists and pharmacy liaisons and Trellis Rx‘s Arbor technology.

In fact, North Memorial Health is “exploring options to launch a pharmacy specifically for specialty pharmacy and employee mail order within the next two to three years,” Krogh tells AIS Health.

In the management of people taking specialty therapies, pharmacists “are increasingly being recognized as critical care team members — something we’ve always believed,” says Tony Zappa, chief solutions officer at Trellis Rx. With the high costs and adherence issues among specialty drugs, “clinic-based pharmacists add value by helping providers select the most appropriate specialty medications for patients and then monitoring the clinical impact of these therapies over time. If a specialty medication isn’t having the desired clinical impact, pharmacists can flag this for providers sooner and recommend alternative therapies. Pharmacy liaisons also help address the financial toxicity that prevents many patients from accessing these therapies.”

Zappa points out that health systems offering clinic-based specialty pharmacy services is a trend that continues to grow. “This model was primarily used by academic institutions at first, but now we’re seeing community and rural health system like North Memorial Health successfully adopt it too,” he says, adding that multiple trends are driving the adoption of the model.

First, “vertical integration of health plans, PBMs, and retail providers…is forcing health systems to differentiate their outpatient clinics to compete with retail providers,” says Zappa. “It’s also driving health systems, especially those in at-risk and value-based contracts, to find innovative ways to partner with health plans.”

As reimbursement for specialty drugs shifts from buy and bill within the medical benefit to the pharmacy benefit, health systems can provide more comprehensive patient care if they can fill and administer not only medical benefit drugs but also those adjudicated under the pharmacy benefit, he points out. Having a holistic view of a person’s care “means providers have visibility into whether or not patients are picking up and refilling prescriptions — information that can be difficult to track down when working with an external pharmacy.” In addition, being able to provide therapies regardless of their benefit gives the health system a “financial advantage.”

Comprehensive View Means Better Care

Having the ability to access integrated pharmacy and medical records allows for a comprehensive approach to health care. By having its own specialty pharmacy, North Memorial Health is “able to offer the highest level of care to customers,” asserts Krogh, adding that patients’ experiences with external specialty pharmacies often are “confusing and uncoordinated.” According to Zappa, “as ‘consumerization’ increases in the health care industry, health systems must differentiate themselves by providing a convenient, data-driven and personalized experience to attract and retain patients.”

Zappa explains that “providers often spend up to two hours per day managing administrative tasks required for specialty medication prescriptions, adding to the current burnout epidemic.” With specialty liaisons handing administrative work, an internal specialty pharmacy can “reduce the burden of specialty medications on our providers, which boosts their satisfaction,” says Krogh.

Finally, Zappa tells AIS Health, “as health systems invest in outpatient services to combat inpatient revenue declines and improve margins, offering on-site specialty pharmacy services can bolster this strategy. In addition to creating a multi million-dollar revenue stream, a specialty pharmacy program can improve a health system’s bottom line by attracting more patients to its outpatient clinics and reducing the total cost of care.”

Systems Should Consider Various Issues

Asked what advice he would give to a health system considering implementing a specialty pharmacy, Krogh replies, “consider what kind of support you will need to be successful. Are you looking for a consultant, or are you looking for a partner that will fully implement a specialty pharmacy for you? Ensure you understand the different options and the amount of resources needed for each option. Choosing the appropriate partner is the most important step to ensure you meet the needs of your customers and your business. Leverage at-risk share and accountable care contracts. Keeping more of a patient’s care in-house through expanded specialty pharmacy offerings aligns with and helps supports care models being built to support customers covered on these at-risk plans. “

According to Zappa, “a specialty pharmacy initiative must be an enterprise effort, not a pharmacy program. As a result, health systems need both organizational capabilities as well as pharmacy-specific ones to succeed. A lack of necessary pharmacy-specific and organizational competencies can delay or, worse, inhibit a program’s success. It may also cause health systems to miss opportunities to enhance clinical outcomes and improve patients’ experiences with their brands.”

Contact Trellis Rx to discuss how a specialty pharmacy program partnership can accelerate development or expansion of your in-house specialty pharmacy.