“New drug prices are Astronomical, Unsustainable and Immoral” – Anatomy of Unique Protests

Yes. The quoted sentiment captured in the headline was reportedly voiced recently by many cancer specialists, including researchers and that too in the heartland of pharmaceutical innovation of the world– the United States of America.

These specialist doctors argued:

“High prices of a medicine to keep someone alive is profiteering, akin to jacking up prices of essential goods after a natural disaster”

Thus, not just in India, high prices of new drugs have started prompting large-scale protests in various types and forms across the world. This time the above unique protest assumed an extra-ordinary dimension, with the eye of the storm being in America.

The news item highlighted quite a different type of public protest by the top doctors, originated at a major cancer center located in New York and actively supported by over 120 influential cancer specialists from more than 15 countries spanning across five continents. These crusaders, though reportedly are working in favor of a healthy pharmaceutical industry, do think, especially the cancer drug prices are beyond the reach of many.

About 30 of these doctors hail from the United States and work closely, as mentioned earlier, with pharmaceutical companies engaged in R&D, including clinical trials.

As the cost of many life saving cancer drugs are now exceeding US$ 100,00 per year, all these doctors and researchers involved in the patients’ fights against cancer, are now playing a pivotal role in resisting such high drug prices vigorously.

Examples of astonishingly high drug prices:

In the area of treating rare diseases, the situation in every sense is mind-boggling. When a drug to treat such ailments comes with a price tag of over US$ 400,000 just for a year’s treatment, it is indeed astonishingly high by any standard. Some protestors even described the cost of these drugs as ‘obvious highway robbery’ in the guise of high R&D cost, while some others would continue to wonder as to why is not there a regulatory intervention for the same?

Here below are the top 10 most expensive drugs of the world…and just hold your breath:

World’s Most Expensive Medicines

No. Name Disease

Price US$ /Year

1. ACTH Infantile spasm

13,800,00

2. Elaprase Hunter Syndrome

657,000

3. Soliris Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria

409,500

4. Nagalazyme Maroteaux-Lamy Syndrome

375,000

5. Folotyn T-Cell Lymphoma

360,000

6. Cinryze Hereditary Angioedema

350,000

7. Myozyme Pompe

300,000

8. Arcalyst Cold Auto-Inflammatory Syndrome

250,000

9. Ceredase / Cerezyme Gaucher Disease

200,000

10. Fabrazyme Fabry Disease

200,000

(Source: Medical Billing & Coding, February 6, 2012)

The good news is protests against such ‘immoral pricing’ have started mounting.

Protests against high drug prices for rare diseases:

Probably due to this reason, drugs used for the treatment of rare diseases are being reported as ‘hot properties for drug manufacturers’, all over the world.

The above report highlighted a changing and evolving scenario in this area.

In 2013, the Dutch Government had cut the prices of new enzyme-replacement therapies, which costs as high as US$ 909,000. Similarly, Ireland has reduced significantly the cost of a cystic fibrosis drug, and the U.K. rejected a recommendation to expand the use of a drug for blood disorders due to high costs.

Soon, the United States is also expected to join the initiative to reduce high prices of orphan drugs as both the government and private insurers increasingly come under the cost containment pressure.

Yet another protest prompted cancer drug price reduction by half:

Another report highlights that last year physicians at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York refused to use a new colon cancer drug ‘as it was twice as expensive as another drug without being better’.

After this protest, in an unusual move, the manufacturer of this colon cancer drug had cut its price by half.

Even developed countries with low out of pocket expenditure can’t sustain such high prices:

With over one million new cancer cases reportedly coming up every year in India, there is an urgent need for the intervention of the Government in this area, especially for poor and the middleclass population of the country.

Further, it is worth noting that in countries like India, where out of pocket expenditure towards healthcare is very high, as public health system is grossly inadequate, such ‘astronomical prices’ will perhaps mentally knock-down many patients directly, well before they actually die.

That said, even in those countries where out-of-pocket expenditure towards healthcare is nil or very low, respective health systems, by and large, be it public or run by other payors, will still require paying for these high cost drugs, making the systems unsustainable.

Moreover, patients on assistance program of the pharmaceutical companies, reportedly also complain that these ‘Patient Access Programs’ are always not quite user friendly.

Protests spreading beyond cancer and rare disease treatment:

The concern for high drug prices is now spreading across many other serious disease areas, much beyond cancer. It has been reported that the issue of drug prices for various other disease areas was discussed in October 2012 at the Cowen Therapeutic Conference in New York. Many doctors in this conference felt that the drugs with no significant benefit over the existing therapy should not be included in the hospital formulary.

Pressure on diabetic and cardiac drug prices:

Various Governments within the European Union (EU) are now reportedly exerting similar pressures to reduce the costs of drugs used for the treatment of diabetes and cardiac disorders. These measures are now reportedly ‘putting the brakes on an US$ 86 billion sector of the pharmaceutical industry that’s been expanding twice as fast as the market as a whole’.

It is worth noting that each nation within EU is responsible for deciding the price of a new drug, though the European Commission approves drugs for all 27 members of the EU.

Flip side of the story – Commendable initiatives of some global companies:

There is another side of the story too. To address such situation some global companies reportedly are increasing drug donations, reinvesting profits in developing countries and adopting to a more flexible approach to intellectual property related issues. However, as per media reports, there does not seem to be any unanimity within the global companies on country-specific new drug pricing issue, at least not just yet.

To encourage pharmaceutical companies to improve access to affordable drugs for a vast majority of population across the world, an independent initiative known as Access to medicine index ranks 20 largest companies of the world. This ranking is based on the efforts of these companies to improve access to medicine in developing countries.

As indicated by the World Health Organization (WHO), this Index covers 20 companies, 103 countries, and a broad range of drugs, including vaccines, diagnostic tests and other health-related technologies required for preventing, diagnosing and treating disease.

The index covers 33 diseases, including maternal conditions and neonatal infections. The top 10 companies in ‘Access to Medicine Index’ ranking for 2012 are as follows:

No. Company

Index

1. GlaxoSmithKline plc 3.8
2. Johnson & Johnson 3.6
3. Sanofi 3.2
4. Merck & Co. Inc. 3.1
5. Gilead Sciences 3.0
6. Novo Nordisk A/S 3.0
7. Novartis AG 2.9
8. Merck KGaA 2.5
9. Bayer AG 2.4
10. Roche Holding Ltd. 2.3

Source: http;//www.accesstomedicineindex.org/ranking

How high is really the high R&D cost?

A recent article published this month raises some interesting points on this subject, which I am quoting below:

  • No direct and transparent details are available from the industry for public scrutiny on the total cost of innovation.
  • What one does have access to are studies on the issue funded by pharmaceutical MNCs themselves.
  • For most NCEs, public-funded programs in the U.S largely invest in drug discovery.
  • In industry sponsored studies there is lack of transparency on the real costs of drug research and development.
  • Various tax benefits allowed under U.S. law are also ignored by industry studies.
  • Researching new drugs gives one Tax breaks to the extent of 50 per cent in the U.S. If one researches and markets an orphan drug for rare diseases, again, tax breaks are available to the tune of half the expenditure.

Further, a 2011 study by Donald W. Light and Rebecca Warburton published by the London School of Economics and Political Science indicates, “based on independent sources and reasonable arguments, one can conclude that R&D costs companies a median of US$ 43.4 million per new drug.”

It is interesting to note, the above cost estimate is a fraction of what is available from the industry source (over US$ 1.2 billion).

An interesting pricing model prescribed:

Another article recently published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) commented, while pharmaceutical companies reportedly spend billions on research, the actual cost of manufacturing a treatment (such as a pill) is minimal. This cost structure enables pricing flexibility.

The author suggests:

  • Adopt a smarter pricing model, where a company can charge the highest price that each customer is willing to pay.
  • To implement smarter pricing that saves more lives, and brings in more revenue, the pharmaceutical industry should create a straightforward grid that specifies the annual maximum a patient should pay out of pocket on drug expenses.
  • Key variables that determine this maximum include income, family size, and their other drug costs. Patients can submit this data to a third party agency to avail discounts based on these criteria.

However, implementability of this model, especially in the Indian scenario, seems to be challenging.

Conclusion:

Despite this gloom and doom, as ‘Access to Medicine Index 2012′ indicates, some pharmaceutical companies do want to become an integral part in finding out a solution to the access problem in general. Though, there are still many more miles to cover, some companies, though small in number, are demonstrably trying to improve access to health care in the developing countries of the world.

Rising prices of new drugs in general and for dreaded disease like cancer and other rare disorders in particular have now started reaching a crescendo, not just India, but in many other countries across the world and in various forms. Probably due to this reason, currently in Europe, regulators tend to be depending more and more in the concept of cost to efficacy ratios for new drugs.

It is interesting to note, the world is witnessing for the first time and that too in the developed world that a large number of specialist doctors are protesting against this trend, unitedly and with strong words.

The anatomy of initial phase of this groundswell, many would tend to believe, signals ushering in a new era of checks and balances to set right ‘astronomical, unsustainable and immoral new drug prices’ in the patients’ fights especially against dreaded diseases, the world over.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

 

 

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