By Caroline Humer
NEW YORK, July 17 (Reuters) - CVS Health said on Wednesday it will start a clinical trial of its new home dialysis system this week, setting it up to compete directly with the two largest operators of U.S. dialysis centers, Fresenius Medical Care AG and DaVita Inc.
CVS is one of the largest U.S. pharmacy operators and pharmacy benefits managers and also owns Aetna, a top health insurer. It had announced last year that it was working on a home hemodialysis system, which would enable patients with end stage renal disease to have more frequent dialysis and potentially better health outcomes compared with clinic-based care.
Without a transplant, patients with end-stage kidney disease require dialysis to clear their blood of waste and excess fluid, which involves spending three-to-five hours hooked up to a machine three times a week.
The U.S. government, which covers most patients with end stage renal disease in its Medicare health program, last week announced plans for several pilot programs aimed at overhauling kidney care. It would provide doctors and kidney care centers with incentives for earlier treatment for the chronic conditions that lead to kidney failure, home dialysis and kidney transplants.
Fresenius earlier this year bought NxStage, a U.S. maker of home-use dialysis machines, for $2 billion and said it would convert some of its clinics into transitional care sites to train patients to do dialysis at home. DaVita has said that it is accelerating home dialysis growth by investing in home remote monitoring and a telehealth platform that make the process easier.
CVS Executive Vice President Alan Lotvin said in an interview that by using its home dialysis equipment, patients are expected to undergo dialysis every other day for around 6 hours per day, potentially doubling the amount of dialysis they receive in a one-week period. More dialysis has been shown to lead to better patient health, he said.
CVS is enrolling up to 70 patients at up to 10 medical centers in the United States and expects the study to be completed in 16 to 18 months. If successful, it plans to begin offering kidney care dialysis services in 2021.
The company will also sell the systems, which were designed with DEKA Research & Development Corp, a New Hampshire-based company owned by Segway scooter inventor Dean Kamen, according to sources familiar with the arrangement. Reuters previously reported on the partnership.
Patients can launch and operate the system, which is contained in two cabinets that are each about the size of a small countertop refrigerator, through a software program on a tablet computer. In the trial, patients are trained for about six weeks with a nurse either at a clinic or at home and then operate the system themselves for six weeks.
Nurses and medical workers are one of the factors that drive the costs of dialysis in centers and can be a factor in home care costs. Doctors are also typically reimbursed when patients receive dialysis, a factor government officials have said undercuts earlier treatment of kidney disease.
DaVita shares have gained 12 percent this year since closing 2018 at $51.42. Fresenius shares closed 2018 at 56.64 euros and are up 25 percent. CVS shares have fallen 12 percent from $65.19 at the end of 2018. (Reporting by Caroline Humer; Editing by Dan Grebler)