Patented Drugs: A Dangerous Pricing Trend Impacting Patient Access

The upcoming trend of jaw dropping high prices for new patented drugs sends a ‘storm signal’ to many stakeholders, especially for its adverse impact on patient access. Even more intriguing, such high and insane prices are being fixed rather arbitrarily, without any valid reason whatsoever. 

It has now been well established, very clearly, that this trend has no linkages with the necessity of keeping the wheel of cost-intensive new drug development initiatives moving, uninterruptedly.

Many believe that this dangerous inclination of the global pharma players picked up, in a major way, with the launch of sofosbuvir (Sovaldi), costing around US$ 1,000 per pill in the United States. This new drug has no relationship with Gilead’s own R&D initiatives, just as many other high priced patented drugs belonging to this genre.

Additionally, the current brand pricing strategy of even those pharma companies who are developing new drugs in-house, is equally intriguing, as those drug prices too have no direct or indirect relationship with R&D expenditures incurred by the respective players. As I discussed that issue in my Blog on August 18, 2014 in an article titled, “Patented Drug Pricing: Relevance To R&D Investments”, I am not arguing on those points here again.

Nevertheless, these unholy practices did not go unnoticed. Anguish against irresponsible pricing, adversely impacting patient access, started gaining momentum, all over. A raging debate has also kick-started on this issue within a wide spectrum of stakeholders, including various Governments and other payers.

They all are questioning, should the Governments, health insurance companies and other payers support such windfall profits of the so called ‘research based’ pharma companies’?

In this article, I shall deliberate on this issue, just when the voices of disgust against this unholy trend have started multiplying.

A palpable disgust expressed in a recent article: 

Against this arbitrary drug pricing trend, a good number of doctors have started raising their voices, with a discernible disgust. 

“We’re all paying a high price for drug company profiteering”, thundered Dr. Daniel J. Stone, an internal medicine and geriatric medicine specialist, in an Op-Ed published in ‘The Los Angeles Times’ on July 6, 2016. 

Dr. Stone further reiterated, “The drug companies are ripping us off, pill by pill, shot by shot. Instead of working to earn reasonable returns by relieving our suffering and saving lives, they now focus on profits above all. Their main targets are insurance companies. But when insurance companies take a hit, they bump up premiums to employers or the government. So we all pay - in taxes, reduced take-home pay, copayments and deductibles.”

Windfall profits:

The article focuses on this new trend in the global pharma industry, adversely affecting access to, especially, the new drugs to a vast majority of the patients. The author unambiguously highlighted that this dangerous pricing strategy got a major thrust from Gilead Sciences Inc. with its acquisition of sofosbuvir’s (Sovaldi) developer – ‘Pharmasset’ in 2011, for US$ 11 billion.

According to Dr. Stone, ‘Pharmasset’s chief executive made an estimated US$ 255 million on the deal, and its 82 employees each averaged around US$ 3.3 million, before Sovaldi came to the market. Thereafter, it’s a history. Gilead took a double markup on the drug, charging enough not just to more than cover the high cost of acquisition of ‘Pharmasset’, but also for making windfall profits.

The reason behind irresponsible pricing:     

The question, therefore, arises, how do the global pharma players dare to go for such irresponsible pricing in many countries of the world?

It is possible for them because the payers, especially the health insurance companies, usually find it difficult to out rightly ignore any unique and new life saving patented medicine for various reasons. As a result, the concerned companies, allegedly effectively use these payers, and also a large section of doctors who can prescribe these brands, facilitating them to make huge profits at the cost of patients.

The justification:

To justify such pricing, these pharma companies and their trade associations are apparently using fear as the key. Through various types of communications, they keep trying to convey that any attempt to restrict their so called ‘reasonable’ prices of these medicines would seriously jeopardize the innovative drug development process, jeopardizing the long term needs of the patients.

More recently, serious attempts were made to also establish Sovaldi’s so called ‘reasonable’ pricing, and its cost effectiveness, in an interesting way.

The company highlighted that Sovaldi is cost effective, not just in comparison to paying for other health care services that the drug might prevent, it also helps avoid cost intensive liver transplant, in many cases. With those costs not being incurred with Sovaldi, the patients, on the contrary, make some savings on the possible alternative treatment cost to fight this deadly disease.

Is it not an atrocious argument?

However, according to Dr. Stone, “This argument is a lot like a plumber billing a customer US$ 20,000 to fix a leaky pipe under the sink. Considering the costs of a possible flood, it might seem defensible. In the real world, any plumber charging based on ‘what you saved’ by preventing a potential catastrophe would lose business to competitors.”

A warning sign:

The above article also highlights, Sovaldi like drug price tag is an unmistakable warning sign, and the emerging trend of patented drug pricing system is a danger to the health of any nation. According to the author:

  • Reforming the financing of drug development will require more creativity.
  • The government should consider subsidizing research and development to reduce the industry’s risk, in return for oversight on pricing that would allow reasonable returns on investment. 

Not possible without many doctors’ active support:

Though it is encouraging to see that some doctors, such as, Daniel J. Stone are raising their voices and arguing against this practice, a large number of other doctors are being actively influenced by the pharma companies to prescribe such products.

This is vindicated by the latest release from the Open Payments database of the Government of the United States. It shows that the drug and device makers of the country incurred a mind boggling expenditure of US$ 2.6 billion towards payment to doctors related to speakers’ fees, meals, royalties and other payments, in 2015. Under the Physician Payments Sunshine Act of America, this is the second full year of the disclosure. 

The total payment made by the drug and device makers to doctors and medical institutions for the year was shown as US$ 7.52 billion.

The point to ponder:

That said, the question that surfaces, if Gilead had to sell its drugs to individuals incurring ‘out of pocket’ health expenditure, how many Sovaldi like drugs would it sell with equivalent to around US$ 80,000 treatments cost?

It won’t be too difficult to ferret out its answer, if we look at the countries, like India, with very high ‘out of pocket’ expenditure on health care, in general, and medicines in particular. 

A possible solution:

According to an article published by the World Health Organization (WHO) on February 8, 2007, Voluntary Licensing (VL)’ practices in the pharmaceutical sector could possibly be a solution to improving access to affordable medicines.

The Section 3 (d) of the Indian Patents 2005, which is generally applicable to ‘me too’ type of new products, could place India at an advantage. In the absence of a grant of evergreen type of product patents, many global companies would ultimately prefer to offer VL to Indian generic manufacturers, under specific terms and conditions, mainly to salvage the situation.

However, such a VL is unlikely to have any potential value, if the IPO refuses to grant patents to those products falling under the above section. In that case, generic competition would possibly further bring down the prices.

Has it started working in India?

Just to recapitulate, starting with a flash back to the year 2006, one can see that Gilead followed the VL strategy for India, probably for the first time, for its patented product tenofovir, used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

At that time Gilead announced that it is offering non-exclusive, voluntary licenses to generic manufacturers in India for the local Indian market, along with provision for those manufacturers to export tenofovir formulations to 97 other developing countries, as identified by Gilead. The company had signed a voluntary licensing agreement with Ranbaxy for tenofovir in 2006.

Interestingly, by that time Cipla had started selling one of the two versions of tenofovir, not licensed by Gilead. Cipla’s generic version was named Tenvir, available at a price of US$ 700 per person per year in India, against Gilead’s tenofovir (Viread) price of US$ 5,718 per patient per year in the developed Markets. Gilead’s target price for tenofovir in India was US$ 200 per month, as stated above.

Following this strategy, again in 2014, Gilead announced, “In line with the company’s past approach to its HIV medicines, the company will also offer to license production of this new drug to a number of rival low-cost Indian generic drug companies. They will be offered manufacturing know how and allowed to source and competitively price the product at whatever level they choose.”

Accordingly, on September 15, 2014, international media reported that Cipla, Ranbaxy, Strides Arcolab, Mylan, Cadila Healthcare, Hetero labs and Sequent Scientific are likely to sign in-licensing agreements with Gilead to sell low cost versions of Sovaldi in India. 

It was also announced, just as tenofovir, that these Indian generic manufacturers would be free to decide their own prices for sofosbuvir, ‘without any mandated floor price’.

Once again, in July 2016, it was reported that a drug called Epclusa – the latest breakthrough treatment for Hepatitis C virus could soon be available in India following Gilead Sciences’ getting its marketing approval from the US FDA.

Press Trust of India (PTI) reported, as part of its effort to offer affordable treatment, Gilead Sciences, together with its 11 partners in India, are pioneering a VL model that transfers technology and Intellectual Property for the latest treatments and cures for viral Hepatitis and HIV.

Some other pharma majors of the world also seem to be attempting to overcome the safeguards provided in the Indian Patents Act, which serves as the legal gatekeeper for the patients’ interest. Their strategy may not include VL, but also not so transparent ‘Patient Access Programs’, and the so called ‘flexible pricing’. All these mostly happen when the concerned companies sense that the product patents could fail to pass the scrutiny of the Indian Patents Act.

That said, I have not witnessed the global pharmaceutical companies’ issuing a flurry of VLs in India, as yet.

Another possible solution for India:

Another possible solution for India, although was scripted in Para 4. XV of the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2012 (NPPP 2012) and notified on December 07, 2012, unfortunately has not taken shape even after four years.

On ‘Pricing of Patented Drugs’, NPPA 2012 categorically states as follows:

“There is a separate committee constituted by the Government Order dated February 01, 2007 for finalizing the pricing of Patented Drugs, and decisions on pricing of patented Drugs would be based on the recommendation of this committee.”

To utter disappointment of many, a strong will to make it happen, even by the new Government is still eluding, by far.

Conclusion:

Without having adequate access to new life-saving drugs, the struggle for life in the fierce battle against dangerous ailments, has indeed assumed an alarming dimension. This is being fuelled by the absence of Universal Health Coverage, and ‘out of pocket expenditure’ on medicines in India being one of the highest in the world.

It would continue to remain so, up until the global pharma majors consider entering into a VL agreement with the Indian pharma majors, just as Gilead. Otherwise, the Government in power should demonstrate its strong will to act, putting in place a transparent model of ‘patented drugs pricing’, without succumbing to any power play or pressures of any kind from vested interests.

Sans these strong initiatives, the dangerous trend of patented drug pricing will continue to deny access of many new medicines to a vast majority of the population to save precious lives.

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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