Saturday, June 28, 2008


On July 1, the public was informed that SureScripts and RxHub merged into a single entity called, for the present, SureScripts-RxHub.
This is exciting news for health care and for me personally. As an Express Scripts VP, I had the good fortune to be present through the planning for the formation of RxHub and, until the formation of the new company, was more recently a member of the SureScripts Board. So I've been a direct witness to the great efforts of both organizations. I add as well that the only facts in this posting are publicly available and that any conjecture on my part is simply that; I have not speculated in areas that I may have formally discussed with either entity.

RxHub was originally formed in 2001 by three pharmacy benefits managers (PBMs) - Advance/PCS (not yet acquired by CareMark), Express Scripts, and MedCo. With various acquisitions, the current owners of RxHub are Caremark, Express Scripts, and Medco. Other PBMs are planning participation. RxHub was formed primarily to simplify the task of e-prescribing for vendors. Since this organization (and SureScripts as well) were formed before standards were promulgated at a national level, these organizations were de facto standard setting bodies. RxHub derives its revenue from formulary eligibility checks and its costs are offset primarily by PBMs. Medication histories are based on medical claims. The first CEO of RxHub was Jim Bradley, now the Chairman of the Board of Prematics.

SureScripts was also established in 2001 by NACDS (National Association of Chain Drug Stores) and NCPA ( National Community Pharmacists Association) - the leading retail pharmacy associations. SureScripts derives its revenue from true e-prescribing messages (new scripts or refills) but not from fax messages; these costs are payed by pharmacies and additional funding is through various debt mechanisms. Medication histories and messaging is primarily through NCPDP SCRIPT. The founding CEO of SureScripts was Kevin Hutchinson, who now serves as CEO of Prematics under Jim Bradly.

Hence, over the past few years the charismatics founders of both RxHub and SureScripts are now working on the vendor end and hence working through the very organizations they created. Small, small, world.

From the outset, these two organizations both competed in some sectors and demonstrated remarkable collaboration in others. In principle, a direct connection between e-prescribing systems and PBMs through RxHub presented the theoretical opportunity to promote diversion of prescriptions from retail phramcies to PBM mail order pharmacies. An effort by the retail pharmacies to promote direct connectivity would mitigate this risk. Similarly, a direct connection with pharmacies without the presentation of formularly options would not simplify the process of PBM-based drug trend management. Both RxHub and SureScripts, no doubt, saw the need to simplify the process of e-prescribing. Both were committed absolutely to establishing national standards to simplify medication management and both actively participated in standards bodies long before the establishment of the HITSP structure created by the HHS Office of the Network Coordinator.

Standards were the easy part. Progress in medication management has been slow in coming. E-prescribing is a complex "dance" among the prescriber and staff, the pharmacy and staff, and the consumer. Each must re-think their activities and deviate from the norms set by fax-based or paper-based prescribing. In many areas, adoption of e-prescribing has been much slower than many of us would have expected. We underestimated the complexity of the system and the comprehensive effort required to provide incentives sufficient to change the behavior of prescriber, dispensing pharmacist, and consumer.

But recent progress is heartening. Where PBM coverage is high, medication histories are increasingly available through RxHub and eligibility checks are growing in frequency. Particularly where chain drugs stores are dominant, true e-prescribing (digital communications, not fax) is growing and fax is disappearing. Still less than 5% of prescriptions are at present sent in digital format.

The New Organization
The new organization will be governed 50:50 by the organizations that founded RxHub and SureScripts. Board composition will be 3 members from the PBM industry and 3 from the retail pharmacy. Management will be under to interim co-CEOs, J.P. Little and Rick Ratliff, who formerly were acting CEOs of RxHub and SureScripts, respectively.

The joint organization will maintain its prohibition of commercial messaging. Given the numerous tensions and differing business models, one can also reasonably assume that secondary sale or distribution of data will not be practiced (although each source PBM or pharmacy, one would assume, will continue whatever their current business practices are). In my personal view, the combined organization presents no new threat to the public through commercial intrusion or misuse of personal health information.

SureScripts-RxHub can be expected to emphasize the following practices in a more consistent and uniform way:
  • Prescription routing. One imagines that the SureScripts' capabilites will be enhanced to expedite digital messaging between prescribers and pharmacies to simplify the ordering, dispensing, refill requests, and medication fill status. Perhaps the PBM mail order pharmacies will be added to the SureScripts network.
  • Payor transactions. The RxHub eligibility checks will presumably continue to be developed to simplify coverage notification and formularies. (Suggestion to the PBM industry; a few hundred - or thousand fewer formulary and nuanced prior authorization rules would simply things immeasurably). Both SureScripts and RxHub supported various repositories of formulary and eligibility information; presumably there is some redundancy here and simplification will be a benefit to vendors and clinicians.
  • Rx history. This is perhaps the most exciting and uninished piece of work that can be addressed by the joint entity. Currently, historical data - if it is present at all - comes via the RxHub claims database or from SureScripts NCPDP script messages. But the RxHub database is claims-based and may suffer both from latency and incompleteness (if low cost-drugs are not entered into the claims database or if the individual is either self-pay or enrolled in a plan not currently connected to RxHub). Although virtually every chain drug store and the majority of independent pharmacies can communicate through e-presribing standards, many SureScripts member pharmacies have not completed medication history service agreements nationwide, but such agreements are anticipated in the next few months. Much work will have to be done. My guess (often wrong) is that prescribers will demand such a service at no cost as a quid pro quo for e-prescribing. Consumers will demand audit logs and various forms of authentication to ensure their medication histories are only accessed for appropriate reasons. As I have argued repeatedly, echoing the Commission for Systemic Interoperability Report of 2005. One of the major national health information technology priorities should be the creation of services that provide complete, reliable, and confidential prescription medication histories for every American. Sadly, although NHIN, ONC, HHS, and others have endorsed standards (often those emphasized by RxHub and SureScripts), follow-through has been disappointing and, to the best of my knowledge, the merger of these two entities is the result of a private-sector business need in the public interest, not the result of top-down regulatory pressure from the government. Fortunately members from both organizations have worked to simplify and advance the currently somewhat complex ONC medication management use case.
  • Pharmacy interoperability and care support. One can expect the combined entity to continue its enhancement of patient health information messaging among providers and dispensers to ensure better coordination and safer medication use.
  • Network support. The at times conflicting interests of the retail, chain, and PBM organizations (as well as the comepition within each sector) will necessitate contiuation of the tradition of neutrality, transparency, and efficiency currently critical to the success of each organizations. Again, the very tensions among the stake holders act, in my view, in the public interest here.
The announcement is great news for American consumers, health care organizations, intermediaries, and the health information management industries. Pressure for mandatory e-prescribing is mounting. The DEA has been under considerable congressional pressure to allow controlled-substances to be prescribed through digital devices and has issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (Federal Register June 27, 2008, volume 73, number 125).

At present, e-prescribing is still an incompletely practiced new form of coordination among prescriber, dispensing pharmacist, and the consumer. It is a system where everyone has to see benefit and change their behavior in some ways. There are many benefits in an ideal world, but in many instances, a lot of work must be done. Change is not easy.

The timing could not be better. Clinicians (both prescribers and dispensers), the staff working within clinical organizations, vendors, and the public are facing a complex array of challenges. In most instances, successful implementation of e-prescribing solutions for communities is the product of de facto collaboration among SureScripts, RxHub, pharmacies, payers, intermediaries, clinicians, and the public. Anything that simplifies the overall process should be applauded.

We are fortunate that the two organizations forming this new entity have complementary missions and have demonstrated a track-record of collaboration. Formalizing this relationship comes at a critical juncture. It is a unique and positive story.

Let us all wish them the best of luck.


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