PANTHERx Specialty Pharmacy’s white glove approach provides life-saving medications for those with rare and devastating diseases
By Erik Cassano
Eighteen years ago, Dr. Gordon Vanscoy (pictured above) had grown disillusioned with the state of the specialty pharmaceutical industry. He had watched it grow from patient-focused and high-touch to vast and commoditized, filled with large companies attempting to consolidate power and maximize profit margins.
By then, Vanscoy had a decades-long career in business and academics under his belt. He had served in high-ranking positions in pharmaceutical and medical companies and as an associate dean and a professor at his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. He was eyeing a transition to an early retirement, not actively seeking new career opportunities.
So when three Pitt students, Drs. Tim Davis, Rob Snyder and Patrick Pugliese, asked him to review a business plan for a specialty pharmacy at retail, he agreed to offer coaching and advice—but had no interest in any further involvement.
“With the direction the industry had gone, I knew starting a new specialty pharmacy with size and influence would be difficult, if not impossible,” says Vanscoy, now chairman and CEO of PANTHERx. “I was skeptical at first because competing would have been a David and Goliath scenario. But I listened to my former students and new partners, and became interested. They shared my passion to reinvent specialty, revolutionize pharmacy and redefine care. What really got my attention was the fact that their strategy foresaw an intersection that was starting to occur in the marketplace.”
That strategy provided the blueprint for the 2011 launch of PANTHERx Specialty Pharmacy, named for Pitt’s mascot, and led Vanscoy to the idea of focusing on devastating disorders and orphan drugs, medications that treat rare diseases (fewer than 200,000 patients worldwide), such as hypophosphatasia, and precision medicines. Today, Vanscoy leads with a back-to-basics focus that is returning high-touch care to specialty pharma, while Snyder serves as senior vice president, Strategy, and Davis serves as senior vice president and head, Business Support.
Filling a gap
Congress first attempted to address the lack of treatments for rare diseases and stimulate the development and production of orphan drugs with the passage of the Orphan Drug Act of 1983, which offered tax benefits and market exclusivity rights to companies developing orphan drugs. The Pediatric Rare Disease Voucher Program of 2012 established a national research agenda and incentives for additional underserved disease research.
Those acts of Congress, in part, helped spur advances toward targeted treatments of rare diseases.
“We now have a deeper knowledge of these small populations and the human genome, and that’s the research that has allowed the development of these targeted drugs,” Vanscoy says. “But mega pharmacy companies don’t generally look at those small populations with rare diseases. They want large populations, large production and high efficiency. When they do offer specialty pharmacy services, it’s often an impersonal, mail-order approach. Small populations of patients with devastating diseases require high-touch service.”
Manufacturers of orphan drugs needed a specialty pharmacy that could focus and provide that kind of service to a small populations of patients. It was an emerging gap in the marketplace, and Vanscoy and his team realized PANTHERx was uniquely positioned to fill it. But to blaze a new trail in the orphan drug market, they had to start by going in the other direction, by building a traditional specialty pharmacy business that served patients with transplants, HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.
“Before we could branch into the orphan drug market, we needed a core customer base in non-orphan (specialty) drugs,” Vanscoy says. “We needed a stable foundation from which to grow and establish credibility. So we started off one physician office at a time, one patient at a time. We started developing preferred relationships with small health plans and payers.”
By 2014, the traditional business was strong enough that PANTHERx was able to make the leap into orphan drugs. Four years later, the company has 11 exclusive agreements with manufacturers of orphan and ultra-orphan drugs (medications to treat a national patient population of 2,000 or fewer).
“It was an immense challenge, but it was a worthwhile undertaking because of who we were uniquely positioned to serve,” Vanscoy says. “I had decades of experience in the space, in addition to the experience and sheer ambition of the other leaders, but to launch PANTHERx, we had to prove ourselves all over again.”
Developing customer relationships is one thing; maintaining them is another. PANTHERx was built literally step by step, with representatives walking from office to office, making contacts among health care professionals. Then, entire populations of patients came on board as PANTHERx became the only place in the country to obtain select orphan drugs and specialized care.
Maintaining those customers requires continuing that level of personal service and remaining focused on the end goal of providing life-enhancing — and in many cases, life-saving — treatments to patients with rare diseases. PANTHERx has been awarded back-to-back national patient satisfaction awards.
Vanscoy reintroduced a white-glove approach to customer service.
“Payers, providers, biotech partners and patients started to realize early on that we are in this to provide value-based care,” Vanscoy says. “It’s not just about distributing product, it’s about providing the right care to the right patient at the right time. If we’re not maximizing the clinical benefit to the patient, we’re not doing our job.”
Providing that level of service means focusing on the details. More fundamentally, it means keeping the organization flat and accessible enough to listen and focus on the details.
“In a regular specialty pharmacy, you are still going to find that mail-order approach, where they’re just trying to get the product out the door,” Vanscoy says. “When you call us, you’re going to speak with someone who knows the disease you’re calling about. They’re going to know the drug. They’re going to know the patient’s case and the treating physician. They’re going to know the details of the treatment and your individual circumstances.”
But it’s not just about the knowledge base; it’s about customers getting to that knowledge base as quickly as possible. PANTHERx often serves as a communication bridge for physician specialists because of the accessibility of its credentialed pharmacists and staff members.
“Often, when you call us, you’re talking to the same person each time,” Vanscoy says. “You aren’t going to have to go through multiple phone trees to find the person you need to speak with.”
It’s important for PANTHERx to facilitate fast and direct communication among doctors, patients, payers and other resources. Operating in the orphan drug space means geographical distance can become a problem, with the possibility of a patient living hundreds of miles from the nearest specialist who treats his or her rare disease.
“PANTHERx bridges that gap, and we track shipments when they go out, so we can ensure they get to the patient within the time promised,” he says. “Obviously, any delays in a patient receiving their medication could have negative consequences for their health, so that’s extremely important.”
PANTHERx will even adjust delivery schedules to account for severe weather, which it monitors constantly.
“We assist in finding financial resources for expensive drugs, clinical services and other forms of assistance,” Vanscoy says.
The need for support was so great that Vanscoy recently launched RareMed Solutions to address it.
“We really go to no end to try to ensure the patient is cared for,” Vanscoy says. “We work hard to be that reliable, and I think it shows in how fast we’ve grown.”
In addition to the headquarters facility in Pittsburgh, the company now operates a second facility in Canfield, Ohio, and plans to move its traditional specialty pharmacy into a second Pittsburgh facility this fall.
“I got into PANTHERx not because I was looking for another business opportunity, but because I became excited by the possibility of how my partners could develop and what this company could become,” Vanscoy says. “We are focused on the right things, and we have a pool of great young talent that is going to continue carrying us forward. Our responsibility is to give them a great place to work.”
In fact, for the third year in a row PANTHERx has been recognized by Modern Healthcare as a Best Places to Work in Healthcare.
“As someone with an academic background in addition to a business background, I love challenging our exceptional people and watching them grow and succeed,” Vanscoy says.
Uncommon service for an uncommon company
Much like the people it serves, PANTHERx Specialty Pharmacy fills a gap in the marketplace.
Growing too fast for the small-business services of most banks, and not quite the size for large-business services, the company had a difficult time finding a bank that could accommodate its changing needs.
Until it found Huntington.
“Several years ago, I was at a University of Pittsburgh Winter Academy in Naples, Florida,” says Dr. Gordon Vanscoy, chairman and CEO of PANTHERx. “There, I met Susie Shipley, the Western Pennsylvania president of Huntington. She heard about PANTHERx, was excited about what we were doing and wanted to win our business.”
Huntington built a platform of financial services that would allow PANTHERx — at that point, the ninth-fastest growing company in the country — to continue growing at a rapid pace.
“They paid such close attention to the details of our business, I originally thought Huntington was locally-based here in Pittsburgh,” Vanscoy says. “It was only later I found out they’re based in Columbus. But that’s the type of bank you want, a bank that feels local. They’ve assisted us with cash flow, lines of credit and other services, and we’re absolutely delighted with the relationship.”
For more information, visit www.pantherspecialty.com.