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The week in business

Globe Staff


Governor defends legislation before state commission

Governor Charlie Baker defended his new health care bill Tuesday, while some in the health care industry began raising concerns about parts of his wide-ranging proposal. The governor’s bill calls for expanding primary care and mental health care. It also would penalize pharmaceutical companies that sharply raise drug prices, prohibit certain surprise bills, limit the use of hospital facility fees, and regulate urgent care centers, among other changes. “While many would argue that the fundamental problems with our health care system are rooted in some provider organizations being paid too much, and some being paid too little, we would argue the problem is more fundamental than that,” Baker said in a speech to the state Health Policy Commission. Community hospitals have long argued they lack the clout to demand higher reimbursements from insurers, and they have lobbied for legislation that would increase their rates. Baker’s 179-page bill doesn’t directly tackle the issue of hospital price variation. It includes $10 million a year in aid for independent community hospitals — but hospital leaders said that falls short. Dianne J. Anderson, the chief executive of Lawrence General Hospital, said the legislation “does not address the real core issues of appropriately reimbursing hospitals and providers.” “It’s probably not enough to be a sustainable fix,” she said of Baker’s bill. “We really do need the actual rate adjustments.” Dr. Michael Apkon, the chief executive of Tufts Medical Center — which is paid less than other academic medical centers in Boston — said the current payment system creates “a pretty uneven playing field for providers to compete against each other.” “We would like to see that addressed more directly,” Apkon said. Some hospital leaders also questioned the feasibility of a central feature of the governor’s bill: a requirement that health care providers and insurers increase investments in primary care and behavioral health by 30 percent over three years, while meeting existing requirements to contain overall spending.


Signs that the housing market is stabilizing a bit

An unusual thing is creeping into Greater Boston’s housing market this fall: choice. Even as home prices continue to tick upward, would-be buyers are finding just a little bit more breathing room in a market that has long been characterized by an almost-frantic race to lock down a house, new numbers about the state’s housing market in September released Wednesday reveal. In case anyone has forgotten what a stable housing market looks like, it means fewer bidding wars, and a few more days on the market. It means sellers occasionally having to cut asking prices. It even means buyers who find something wrong during inspection coming back to renegotiate, instead of just eating repair costs themselves. That’s all happening more than it did during the go-go days of the last few years, Major said. But to be clear, the cost of buying a house is still on the upswing. The median price of a single-family home in Massachusetts in September climbed 5 percent compared to the same month in 2018, to $399,000, according to real estate data firm The Warren Group. Condo prices increased 14 percent to $$375,000, thanks partly to new, high-end, buildings opening in Boston. Sales volume edged upward, too. But importantly, the number of options in the condo market increased, with more listed for sale in September; and both houses and condos are staying on the market a bit longer — signs, Major said, of buyers growing choosier. — TIM LOGAN



Big week with major announcements from Vertex and Biogen

For an industry where progress is generally measured over decades or more, the state’s biotech world was rocked by two major developments in the span of just 16 hours last week. Around 3 p.m. on Monday, the Food and Drug Administration announced it had approved a new combination drug by Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals to treat cystic fibrosis — five months sooner than expected. Then at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Biogen said it would revive a medicine for early Alzheimer’s disease that it scrapped as a failure in March. The Cambridge firm plans to seek FDA approval based on a new analysis, although several stock analysts are deeply skeptical that Biogen will get the green light. Many questions remain, particularly about Biogen’s stunning reversal. Still, the news involving two of the state’s biggest biotechs raised the hopes of families and doctors desperate for drugs to treat the diseases. Biogen’s announcement on Tuesday was the bigger bombshell. The firm has been working for years on the experimental drug aducanumab for Alzheimer’s. That form of dementia afflicts more than 5 million Americans, and no drugs significantly slow its ravages. The hunt for an effective treatment has eluded some of the world’s biggest drug companies. According to an industry report, there were 146 failed attempts to develop medicines to treat and potentially prevent Alzheimer’s in the past two decades — and only four new drugs approved to treat symptoms. On March 21, Biogen said it was abandoning tests on aducanumab based on the recommendations of an independent monitoring board entrusted to protect patients in the study. Biogen and its Japanese partner Eisai said they halted two late-stage clinical trials after concluding that the compound was unlikely to benefit patients. With the setback, Biogen joined the long list of drug firms that had struck out on Alzheimer’s treatments. It also appeared to mark the demise of a series of experimental Alzheimer’s drugs that targeted a protein in the brain called beta amyloid, all of which had failed. But Michel Vounatsos, Biogen’s CEO, and Al Sandrock, its research chief, said the aducanumab story didn’t end in March. Biogen, in consultation with a team from the FDA, conducted a new analysis of a larger data set from the late-stage clinical trials that were halted, they said. The new analysis included additional data that became available after the prior analysis showed the study had no chance of success. The new data showed that aducanumab was “pharmacologically and clinically active” in higher doses in reducing brain amyloid and in reducing clinical decline. — JONATHAN SALTZMAN



Partners to spend $80m to boost scientific research, AI startups

Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest health care provider, plans to spend $80 million to advance scientific research that could lead to new treatments for disease and boost startups working on artificial intelligence programs for health care. The bulk of the funds, $50 million, will be set aside for scientists within the Partners system, which includes Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General hospitals. Partners plans to invest the money in early-stage research projects that could lead to new therapies for patients. The money is designed to help scientists who may be running low on grants from traditional funding sources, such as the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Anne Klibanski, the chief executive of Partners, said many scientists are working on promising ideas, but they may not know how to advance their research to the point that it draws interest from venture capitalists or drug companies. Partners is also planning to spend $30 million in a venture fund to invest in startups developing artificial intelligence technology for health care. — PRIYANKA DAYAL MCCLUSKEY