Enterprise-Record (Chico)

Why new Alzheimer’s drug having slow debut

- By Tom Murphy

The first drug to show that it slows Alzheimer’s is on sale, but treatment for most patients is still several months away.

Two big factors behind the slow debut, experts say, are scant insurance coverage and a long setup time needed by many health systems.

Patients who surmount those challenges will step to the head of the line for a drug that delivers an uncertain benefit. Here’s a closer look.

The situation

The U.S. Food and Drug Administra­tion approved Leqembi, from Japanese drugmaker Eisai, in early January. It’s for patients with mild or early cases of dementia tied to Alzheimer’s disease.

Regulators used the FDA’s accelerate­d pathway, which allows drugs to launch before they’re confirmed to benefit patients. In studies, Leqembi modestly slowed the fatal disease, but doctors aren’t sure yet how that translates into things like greater independen­ce for patients.

Patients get the drug by IV every two weeks. Eisai says the company has shipped Leqembi to U.S. specialty drug distributi­on centers. From there, it can be delivered overnight to hospitals or medical centers.

Eisai spokeswoma­n Libby Holman said prescripti­ons for the drug have been written, and they expect patients to start receiving it “very soon.”

Cost and coverage

A year’s treatment will run about $26,500. Patients who can afford that without insurance will be able to start the treatment if they are deemed a candidate for Leqembi and they find a doctor and health care system prepared to help them.

There are currently few options outside selfpay. Most of the patients who may be candidates for this drug are on Medicare, and the federal program’s coverage is narrow so far. It has said it will cover treatments like Leqembi only for patients enrolled in certain research trials designed to test the drug.

There are no such studies currently accepting new patients.

“There’s a theoretica­l door (to coverage) that’s completely slammed shut,” said Robert Egge, chief public policy officer for the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Associatio­n.

Medicare made that coverage decision last year when another Alzheimer’s drug, Biogen’s Aduhelm, hit the market.

Health insurers, which run Medicare Advantage coverage, have been sticking to that decision, said a spokesman for the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Medicare, said after Leqembi’s approval that it may reconsider its coverage stance, something the Alzheimer’s Associatio­n has urged it to do.

Coverage also is likely to change if the drug receives full approval from the FDA. That could happen later this year.

In the meantime, Eisai has an assistance program that provides Leqembi for free to some patients, including those on Medicare. It’s based partly on financial need.

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