Techniker Krankenkassen (or TK as it is also frequently referred to) is one of Germany’s largest public or so-called “statutory” health insurance companies. It is companies like TK that provide health insurance to 90% of the German population.
TK is also on the front lines of the medical cannabis discussion. In fact, TK, along with other public health insurers AOK and Barmer, have processed the most cannabis prescriptions of all insurers so far in the first year after the law change. There are now approximately 15,000 patients who have received both a proper prescription and insurance approval coverage. That number is also up 5,000 since the beginning of just this year.
In a fascinating first look at the emerging medical market in Germany, TK, in association with the University of Bremen, has produced essentially the first accessible report on approvals, and patient demographics for this highly stigmatized drug.
Because it is in German, but also contains information critical to English-speaking audiences in countries where the medical issue is being approached more haphazardly (see the U.S. and Canada), Cannabis Industry Journal is providing a brief summary of the most important takeaways from TK’s Cannabis Report.
Most Patients Are Women
This is not exactly surprising in a system where symptomology rather than ability to pay is the driver of authorizations and care. This is also exactly the opposite trend when it comes to gender at least, that emerged in Colorado on the path to medical legalization circa 2010-2014. While chronic pain is still the most common reason for dispensation, the drug is going mostly to women, not men, in their forties, fifties and sixties.
Even Chronically Ill Patients Are Still not Getting Covered
This data is super interesting on the ground for both advocates and those who are now pushing forward on “doctor education” efforts that are springing up everywhere. The only condition for which cannabis was approved 100% was for patients suffering from terminal cancer pain from tumours. In other words, they were also either in hospice or hospital where this kind of drug can be expedited and approved quickly. Other conditions for which the drug was approved were both at far lower rates than might have been expected (see only a 70% approval rate for Epilepsy and a 33% approval rate for Depression).
Expect approval rates to change, particularly for established conditions where the drug clearly helps patients, even if there are still questions about dosing and which form of cannabis works best, along with improved research, data and even patient on boarding.
Also expect interesting data to come out of this market for patients with ADHD (or ADHS).
Imported Cannabis Is Very Expensive
TK and other public health insurers are also on the front lines of another issue not seen in any other legalizing cannabis country at the moment. An eye-wateringly high cost per patient. The biggest reason? Most of the medical cannabis in the market is being imported. This will change when more cannabis begins to enter the market from other EU countries (see Spain, the Baltics and Greece) and, yes, no matter how many elements of the German government are still fighting this one when it begins to be cultivated auf Deutschland.
Most German Patients Are Still Only Getting Dronabinol
If there was one thing that foreign investors should take a look at, it is this. One year after legalization, just over 1/3 of those who actually qualify for “medical cannabis” are in fact getting whole plant medication or a derivative (like Sativex).
This means only one thing. The market is continuing to grow exponentially over at least the next five to ten years.
If anyone (read Auslanders) had any illusions that the German take on medical cannabis was going to be casual or unscientific if not painstakingly documented, think again.
Techniker Krankenkasse (or TK as it is referred to by the locals) is one of Germany’s largest public health insurance companies. In other words, it is a private company that is required to provide so called “statutory” health insurance which covers 90% of Germans.
As such, they are also on the front lines now of the medical cannabis debate. Approximately one year after the new law requiring public health insurance companies like TK to reimburse cannabis claims went into effect, the company has just issued what would surely be a best-seller if it were being sold.All of the medical cannabis now being prescribed and reimbursed is coming from abroad.
The Cannabis Report, as it is titled, produced with the help of professors at the University of Bremen, is also the first of its kind. In its pages, along with the corporate summary produced for the recent press conference in Berlin, are several fascinating snapshots of what is going on.
By the numbers.
The Cannabis Report
For those who cannot understand German, this summary by Business Insider is quite educational. Here are the major takeaways: There are now almost 16,000 German patients who are receiving some kind of medical cannabis by prescription. From a doctor. These patients are also paying about $12 for their monthly supplies – even if they have to wait for reimbursement. This is in contrast to the 1,100 patients who managed to obtain cannabis by prescription and pay for it themselves before the law changed last spring.
Do the math and that is a 1,450% uptick. Add in the additional 15,000 left out of this report who are getting cannabis prescribed but their claims turned down, and that is an even more amazing story.
Here is the next obvious fact: All of the medical cannabis now being prescribed and reimbursed is coming from abroad. A significant amount is still coming from Holland. The rest? Canada.
For that reason, the cost of medical cannabis is a major concern, along with the medical efficacy of cannabis and the authors’ frustrations about dosing.
The most interesting takeaway? Chronic pain and spasticity arehigh on the list of prescriptions (MS is currently the only condition which is “on label” for cannabis). So is Epilepsy and AIDS. Most interestingly are the high numbers for ADD. This is also highly significant in a country where amphetamine prescriptions for the same are almost unheard of.
TK, like the other health insurers who have started to provide numbers, also approved approximately two thirds of the requests they received. And it has cost them $2.7 million. That bill will begin to reduce as Germany cultivates medical cannabis domestically. However, the tender bid, which now apparently includes 11 contenders, is still undecided, with growing apparently pushed off now until (at the earliest) sometime next summer.
The bottom line, however, in the report from Socium, a university-based think tank that focuses on social inequality, is that cannabis is a drug that should also be treated like any other medication. Even though study authors conclude that so far, they do not find cannabis to be as “effective” as other drugs, they clearly state that the drug does help patients.
An Equally Interesting Industry Snapshot
Flip to page 20, however, and the authors also confirm something else. The top companies providing medical cannabis to German publicly insured patients who are getting reimbursed are Bedrocan, Aurora andCanopy. Aurora’s brands clock in at the highest percentage of THC, although their German importer Pedianos, clearly offers a range of products that start at less than 1% and increase to 22%. MedCann GmbH (renamed Spektrum last year) is essentially providing the rest, and ranges of THC at least, that go from 5.4%-16.5%. They also provide the products with the highest percentages of CBD.
Unlike the other companies, Canopy’s “brands” are also showing up in ostensibly both medical and government reports (Houndstooth, Penelope, Princeton and Argyle). This is interesting primarily because the German government (and regulatory requirements) tends to genericize medications as much as possible.
Dosing, Impact, Results
The next page of the report is also fascinating. Namely a snapshot of what kind of cannabis is being prescribed and at what doses. Patients who are obtaining cannabis flower are getting up to 3 grams a day. Dronabinol, in stark contrast (which is still the only form of the drug many German patients are able to get), is listed at 30mg.
Unlike any corporate report so far, the study also discusses consumption methods (including, charmingly, tea). It is impossible to forget, reading this, how German and structured this data collection has clearly been. There are several fairly stern referrals to the fact that cannabis should not just be prescribed for “vague” (read psychological) conditions but rather aspecific symptomology (muscle spasms and severe pain).
There is also great interest in how flower differs from pills. And how long the effects last (according to the authors, effects kick in about 2-15 minutes after dosing and last for 4 hours). This is, of course, an accurate picture of what happens to just about every patient, in every country. What is striking, particularly to anyone with an American perspective, is how (refreshingly) clinical much of this basic data collection and discussion is.
And no matter how much the authors call for more research, they clearly have observed that cannabis can have positive, and in many cases, dramatic impacts on patients. According to the handy graphs which are understandable to English speakers, study authors find significant evidence that the drug significantly helps patients with severe pain and or muscle spasms – see MS and Epilepsy, AIDS patients with wasting syndrome and paraplegics (wheelchair bound individuals). Authors list the “strong possibility” that the drug can help with Tourette’s and ADHD. Fascinatingly, however, so far, German researchers are not impressed with the efficacy of the drug for Glaucoma. “Psychological” and psychiatric conditions are also low on the list.
Regardless, this is an important line in the sand. As is the clear evidence that cannabis has efficacy as medication.
The great German cannabis science experiment, in other words, is well underway. And further, already starting to confirm that while many questions remain, and more research is required, this is a drug that is not only here to stay, but now within reach of the vast majority of the population.
According to a press release, last week GW Pharmaceuticals’ drug Epidiolex received a positive FDA panel review, which is an encouraging and important step towards getting the drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and on the market in the United States. Epidiolex is an anti-epilepsy drug, taken in a syrup form, with the main active ingredient being cannabidiol (CBD), and less than 0.1 % THC.
The drug is targeted to treat Dravet syndrome (DS) and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS) a rare early-onset type of epilepsy found in children, according to Reuters. FDA staff said the drug “reduces seizure frequency in patients with drug-resistant LGS or DS while maintaining a predictable and manageable safety profile.”
GW Pharmaceuticals, founded in 1998 and based in London, is a biopharmaceutical company that has made headlines previously for developing cannabis-derived drugs. Sativex, one of the first drugs they developed, is derived from cannabis, but was not approved by the FDA. It is however available in other parts of the world, such as the EU, Israel and Canada.
If Epidiolex actually gets approval by the FDA, it will be the first-ever cannabis-derived drug available via prescription in all of the United States. According to Justin Gover, chief executive officer of GW Pharmaceuticals, this is a momentous breakthrough for the company. “We are pleased by the Advisory Committee’s unanimous recommendation to approve Epidiolex, which would provide an important treatment option for patients with LGS and Dravet syndrome, two of the most severe and treatment-resistant forms of epilepsy,” says Gover “This favorable outcome marks an important milestone in our company’s unwavering commitment to address the significant unmet need for patients with LGS and Dravet syndrome and our resolve to study Epidiolex under the highest research and manufacturing standards. We look forward to our ongoing discussions with the FDA as it continues to review the Epidiolex NDA.”
According to the GW press release, the Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee of the FDA unanimously recommended supporting the approval of the New Drug Application (NDA) for the drug. That advisory committee is sort of like an independent panel; their unanimous vote doesn’t necessarily mean the drug will get approved, but the FDA takes their decision into consideration when approving new drugs. So this panel recommendation is certainly a good sign and shows this drug could potentially be on the path to FDA approval.
In a move that seems to shed more doubt than certainty on domestic cannabis cultivation and the date that it will start auf Deutschland, the Higher Regional Court (or OLG) in Dusseldorf formally stopped the pending bid procedure for the first crop on March 28th. BfArM, the federal agency in charge of regulating all narcotic drugs, initiated that procurement bid. The tender bid was launched after the German Parliament and federal legislators changed the law last year to mandate that cannabis be available via prescription, and further that public health insurers were required to cover it.
That bid announcement was supposed to come as early as last September. Criticisms about the process and requirements began immediately thereafter. For starters, the bid’s requirements excluded all German-only respondents to the bid and left both Canadian and Israeli firms in the front positions to obtain these valuable licenses. However, there were other gripes, including the fact that the amount of cannabis requested (about 6.6 tonnes) was far too low to even begin to meet real demand. Namely, there are easily 1 million German patients who could qualify for the drug.
In the space of the last year, in fact, the number of “official” German cannabinoid patients has shot up from 1,000 to about 15,000. That said, the top three covering insurers also report a mere 64% approval rate. This means that there are more doctors writing prescriptions than insurers are covering.
That, at least for patients and their advocates is a bit of good news despite the blow that any delay in domestic production has created. Doctor resistance to prescribing cannabinoids even when there are no other alternatives has been used as an excuse in many media reports for the speed of market development. That clearly is not true. The attitude on the ground in Deutschland is rapidly changing.
That bid announcement was supposed to come as early as last September. At that point, however,the agency was then forced to extend the response date, which it did, but apparently not for long enough.
Throughout the fall, it was impossible to understand, from any direction, what was going on. Four lawsuits against the bid were launched around September, each with differing complaints that ranged from criticizing the agency for the lack of extension and response time to monopolistic business practices.
The OLG dismissed all but the criticism about the extension.what this decision has done most clearly is slowed down the production of domestically grown medical cannabinoids
The one clear thing to come out of Düsseldorf? BfArM has been banned from awarding its contract to anyone to produce medical cannabis in Germany starting in 2019. The first letters to bid finalists announcing the bid had been canceledbegan arriving the day after the court’s decision.
Reading Between the Lines
There have been rumors since last fall that the bid would end up in such waters. However,all the major producers widely suspected to have applied for the bid also began announcing themselves as finalists in press releases. For this reason, the official line from everyone that the bid was still, in fact, on track.
Nobody could understand why anyone would want or even be able to halt the production of direly needed, locally sourced, high-gradecannabis. That includes BfArM, which made an impassioned response, via their attorney to the OLG in Dusseldorf. Attorney Heike Dahs warned the court that any interruption of the bid was “very bad for the care of patients.” He was similarly pessimistic about the ability to begin production domestically by the previously set 2019 deadline.
In fact, what this decision has done most clearly is slowed down the production of domestically grown medical cannabinoids (although potentially not by much) while giving officials at BfArM a rather nasty black eye that might yet lead to further legal action.
It also means that there will be another bid process. In the meantime, the ex-im market is, if anything, taking off.
This is a Shock And Opportunity – but not a Surprise
No matter the opinionated emails and IM’ing going on in several languages all over the world right now about the implications legally in the future, the major producers are all taking this in stride. And appear to be well positioned to respond.
According to Dr. Pierre Debs, the managing director of Spektrum Cannabis (the global medical brand of Canopy and based just south of Frankfurt), who responded to CannabisIndustryJournal a day after the court decision, the company is not affected by this development. “Spektrum has a steady and constant supply and we do not anticipate any problems supplying patients through their pharmacies,” he says. Debs received the first German medical import license to bring Canadian cannabis into the country a mere two years ago and has continued to carve a leading path in the discussion across Europe. “In addition to our supply from Canopy Growth Corp, our partnership supply agreement with Alcaliber in Spain will see Spektrum importing sun-grown medical cannabis products starting towards the end of the summer,” says Debs.
But it is not just the big guys in the mix anymore. And there are many who see opportunityto a situation, which is frustrating.“As the second-largest country by population in Europe and a leader within the EU, the German market represents a new frontier for the cannabis industry in general in the region,” says Zlatko Keskovski, chief executive officer of NYSK Holdings, a Macedonian firm now in its second harvest of GMP-certified cannabis and holding EU export rights.
For such firms, even though NYSK is a surprise entrant to the conversation this year and outside the EU, the current situation represents an unbelievable chance to enter a market literally starving for qualifiedproduct. The firm is currently looking for German distributors who cannot access medical grade cannabinoids via other routes including attending the ICBC in Berlin in April. “This year’s ICBC looks to be a seminal moment for NYSK,” says Keskovski. “We have taken the appropriate steps to ensure our high-quality standards have led to products that our customers, and eventually patients, can rely on. We look forward to the chance to showcase our achievements that we’ve worked so hard for. The ICBC will also present us with the opportunity to meet with potential distributors and future partners.”
German Patients are Going to be on the Front Lines of This Discussion
The difficulties that German patients have already faced in obtaining a drug that is now legal in their own country for medical use (and even for recreational purposes across an open border in Holland) are legion. While to a certain extent, German patients are in the same boat as patients elsewhere and their problems, in fact, there are still huge access issues that remain. For starters, the drug is much more expensive here, so those without health insurance approval face bills of about $3,000 per month. Why the eye-watering price? All medical grade cannabis is still imported, although increasingly this is now just via other EU countries, not just from Canada.
“One of the reasons we organized the national German Patient Roundtable is to give patients a voice in all of this supply and demand discussion and to help BfArM and others formulate workable solutions for all,” responded Philip Cenedella IV when reached for a response by CIJ. Cenedella, an American expat and the organizer of the Roundtable, a nationally focussed, umbrella group that is kicking off its campaign this year, spoke for many who are far from court and boardrooms where the decisions are being made.
“While there are very talented firms who will now take up this discussion with the government and reissue a response for the tender, what we continue to see on the ground is that patients simply do not have the access granted them in the law which was passed over a year ago,” Cenedella says, with more than a note of frustration. “We again are calling on all government officials, industry executives and patient advocates to band together to immediately establish workable protocols that directly help the patients.”
Indeed, despite the frustration and delay, if not new costs and opportunities that this decision creates, one thing is very clear on the ground here. The current status quo is unacceptable. That alone should also put pressure on the powers that be to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. And via several routes, including widening import quotas or even issuing new licenses as a new solution to domestic cultivation is implemented.
“Patients are not being served and do not have access to a medicine that has been proven to improve lives,” says Cenedella. “Our simple request is for BfArM to finally invite patients into their discussions, to work with patients to formulate workable cultivation and distribution solutions, and we humbly request that this happen now before they go down another dead-end road, ending in another court defeat, and resulting in even more delays to the patients that are still lacking the care afforded them by the German Federal Court’s decision of 2017.”
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