Why U.S. Biologic Drugs Are So Expensive

By Sarah Jane Tribble, Kaiser Health News

Europeans have found the secret to making some of the world’s costliest medicines much more affordable, as much as 80 percent cheaper than in the U.S.

Governments in Europe have compelled drugmakers to bend on prices and have thrown open the market for so-called biosimilars, which are cheaper copies of biologic drugs made from living organisms. The brand-name products — ranging from Humira for rheumatoid arthritis to Avastin for cancer — are high-priced drugs that account for 40 percent of U.S. pharmaceutical sales.

European patients can choose from dozens of biosimilars, 50 in all, which have stoked competition and driven prices lower. Europe approved the growth hormone Omnitrope as its first biosimilar in 2006, but the U.S. didn’t follow suit until 2015 with cancer-treatment drug Zarxio. 

Now, the U.S. government stops short of negotiating and drugmakers with brand-name biologics have used a variety of strategies — from special contracting deals to overlapping patents known as “patent thickets”— to block copycat versions of their drugs from entering the U.S. or gaining market share.

As a result, only six biosimilars are available for U.S. consumers.

European countries don’t generally allow price increases after a drug launches and, in some cases, the national health authority requires patients to switch to less expensive biosimilars once the copycat product is proven safe and effective, said Michael Kleinrock, research director for IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.

From $50 to $1,300 a month

If Susie Christoff, a 59-year-old who suffers from debilitating psoriatic arthritis, lived in Italy, the cost of her preferred medicine would be less than quarter of what it is in the U.S., according to data gathered by GlobalData, a research firm.

Christoff tried a series of expensive biologics before discovering a once-a-month injection of Cosentyx, manufactured by Swiss drugmaker Novartis, worked the best.

Without the medicine, Christoff said, her fingers can swell to the size of sausages.

SUSIE CHRISTOFF (KAISER HEALTH NEWS PHOTO)

SUSIE CHRISTOFF (KAISER HEALTH NEWS PHOTO)

“It’s 24/7 constant pain in, like, the ankles and feet,” said Christoff, who lives in Fairfax, Va. “I can’t sleep, [and] I can’t sit still. I cry. I throw pillows. It’s just … awful.”

At first, Christoff’s copay for Cosentyx was just $50 a month. But when a disability led her to switch to a Medicare Advantage plan, her out-of-pocket costs ballooned to nearly $1,300 a month — more than three times her monthly car loan.

Christoff, with the help of her rheumatologist, Dr. Angus Worthing, tried Enbrel, Humira and other drugs before finding Cosentyx, the only drug that provides relief. Christoff’s case is “heartbreaking,” Worthing said.

Novartis declined to respond to questions about Cosentyx’s price. Instead, like other pharmaceutical companies, Novartis says it offers patient assistance programs for those who can’t afford the drug. Christoff said she doesn’t qualify for financial assistance.

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Like other biologics, Cosentyx costs thousands of dollars per month. The annual cost of Christoff’s treatment runs about $65,000 in the U.S. In Italy, where competition and price negotiations play a bigger role, it would run about $15,000, according to GlobalData.

In England, Dr. Christopher Griffiths, a lead researcher at the National Institute for Health Research who treats patients with Cosentyx, said the National Health Service would pay about 10,000 pounds, or less than $13,000.

And those drastic price differences are true even though there is no biosimilar version of Cosentyx yet available in Europe, and might not be for years.

The cost of the drug is taking a toll on Christoff. This past summer, her progressive disease made it difficult to enjoy the annual family vacation with her three grown children and their kids in Virginia Beach, Va.

“I can’t get down on the sand to play with my kids without help. I can’t get up without help,” Christoff recalled. “I’m not ready to stop trying. But I’m also not ready to go through my entire retirement fund to walk.”

Unlike Cosentyx, rival drugs — Humira, Enbrel and Remicade — all face biosimilar competition in Europe. Only Remicade has competition from a lower-cost biosimilar in the U.S., and Humira isn’t expected to have a copycat competitor in the U.S. market until 2023. Humira, made by AbbVie, is the world’s top-selling drug.

In late October, Wall Street analyst Ronny Gal at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. noted that AbbVie agreed to drop Humira’s price by 80 percent in one Nordic country to combat biosimilar competition. During the company’s quarterly conference call, AbbVie chief executive Richard Gonzalez said the drug’s discount was as low as 10 percent and as high as 80 percent across the continent, with the highest discounts in Nordic countries.

“These are markets where it’s ‘winner takes all’ across the entire… category, so includes Remicade and Enbrel as well,” Gonzalez said in November, adding that Nordic countries represent about 4 to 5 percent of overall revenue in AbbVie’s international business.

Concerned about how much biologics cost the U.S. health system and patients, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced an “action plan” this summer that included tapping the Federal Trade Commission for help, saying he was “worried” about the biosimilar market.

“The branded drug industry didn’t build its success by being business naive; they are smart competitors,” Gottlieb told an audience full of advocates, industry insiders and researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution in July. “But that doesn’t mean we need to embrace all of these business tactics or agree with them and think they are appropriate.”  

Rebate Traps

One of these business tactics involves so-called rebate traps, in which financial deals are cut to make sure patients can get only a biologic, not a biosimilar. International drugmaker Pfizer alleged in a September 2017 lawsuit that exclusionary contracts created by Johnson & Johnson prevented use of its biosimilar by health insurers, hospitals and clinics.

Johnson & Johnson’s wildly successful biologic Remicade, the brand-name version of infliximab, produced $6.3 billion in worldwide in 2017. Pfizer launched its copycat drug, Inflectra, in the U.S. in October 2016, noting in the announcement that it would price the drug at a 15 percent discount to Remicade’s wholesale price.

Still, health systems such as Geisinger Health, based in Pennsylvania, say they have had difficulty switching to the less expensive alternative.

“J&J has done a really good job of entrenching themselves in the market,” said Jason Howay, manager of formulary services at Geisinger.

The health system ultimately decided it wanted to switch all adults to Pfizer’s biosimilar, saying it provided the same quality of treatment. But Johnson & Johnson had “bundled” the prices of other drugs with Remicade. So if Geisinger stopped using Remicade on adult patients, J&J could stop providing discounts on other drugs, such as those used for cardiology, Howay explained. “It weaves a very tangled web.”

A spokeswoman for Janssen, Johnson & Johnson’s main pharmaceutical subsidiary, says the drugmaker does offer “more attractive contract terms” to buyers who use a wider range of J&J medicines. “Our contracting approach has always prioritized access for patients and their providers,” Meredith Sharp says.

Geisinger negotiated with biosimilar maker Pfizer and won still lower prices to make up for lost savings on the other J&J drugs. It’s now transitioning all adult patients to the less expensive biosimilar.

Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Legal Battles Brew Over High Cost of Arthritis Drugs

By Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News

Early last winter, Pfizer launched its new rheumatoid arthritis treatment, Inflectra, pricing it 15 percent below the $4,000-a-dose wholesale price of Remicade, the drug for which it is a close copy.

Pfizer figured its lower price would attract cost-conscious insurers.

A year later, though, its drug has barely scratched the market and Pfizer has filed an antitrust suit against its rivals, alleging they are thwarting lower-priced competition through “exclusionary contracts” and rebates.

The outcome of the case — filed in September in U.S. District Court against Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Remicade, and Janssen Biotech — could affect the future of biosimilars, a new class of drugs. Some policy experts say these near-copies of biologics are key to slowing spending on complex and expensive specialty medications like those used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

At the heart of the case are rebates, which are discounts off the wholesale price of drugs.

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Manufacturers offer them to help keep their products on insurers’ lists of covered drugs. The money mainly goes back to insurers and pharmacy benefit managers, who say the rebates help reduce health care spending.

But Pfizer alleges that those rebates are being used to thwart biosimilars’ entry into the marketplace.

“This is the first antitrust case we’ve seen like this around biosimilars,” said Michael Carrier, a Rutgers Law School professor “Pfizer is claiming that one form of anti-competitive behavior involves withholding rebates from insurers.”

Biosimilars are costly to produce, so they are not likely to trigger the same sharp pricing drop triggered by generics. Still, their manufacturers say they could bring consumers some relief to rival biologics’ high price tags.

Pfizer’s Inflectra is one of the first biosimilars to hit the market since Congress passed legislation in 2010 to pave the way.

According to Pfizer, weeks after Inflectra gained Food and Drug Admininstration approval, J&J moved to stake out its biologic turf.

J&J began requiring insurers and PBMs to sign “exclusionary contracts … designed to block both insurers from reimbursing and hospitals and clinics from purchasing Inflectra or other biosimilars of Remicade despite their lower pricing,” alleges the case filed in federal district court in Philadelphia.

If insurers don’t agree to the J&J contracts, the loss of rebates could “for some insurers, run into the tens of millions of dollars annually,” the Pfizer case alleges.

Even with its lower price, Pfizer faced an uphill battle to win market share.

Remicade is the fifth-biggest-selling drug by revenue in the U.S., reaping more than $4.8 billion in 2016 for makers J&J and Janssen, the suit said. Often, patients are reluctant to switch once they are established on an RA drug that is working for them.

Still, Pfizer thought it would pick up newly diagnosed patients and gain ground that way. But its lawsuit says the drug accounted for only about 4 percent of total sales, with Remicade getting the rest, by early September.

“We stand by our contracts,” said J&J and Janssen Biotech in a written statement. The firms also defend rebates as “competition that is doing what competition is meant to do: driving deeper discounts that will lead to overall lower costs.”

Yet the price of Remicade has not fallen, the Pfizer case says.

Since approval of Inflectra, J&J has raised the list price of Remicade by close to 9 percent, the lawsuit alleges. As of September, Remicade’s average sales price –after discounts and rebates — is more than 10 percent higher than Inflectra.

“This case is a big deal, because it has the potential to bring to light some of the anti-competitive contracting practices at work to keep … prices extremely high,” said Jaime King, a professor at University of California-Hastings College of the Law.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Rising Cost of Arthritis Drugs Defies Economics

By Julie Appleby, Kaiser Health News

Renda Bower knows well the cost of drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis – her husband, son and daughter all have the painful, disabling autoimmune disease. And the family’s finances revolve around paying for them.

Even with insurance, Bower’s family last year faced $600 a month in copayments for the drug, plus additional payments on another $16,000 in medical bills racked up in 2016 when a former insurer refused to cover all the doses her 9-year-old daughter needed.

Bowers, of Warsaw, Ind., said her family tries to keep up with prices by cutting back on her children’s sports and extracurriculars and skipping family vacations. She also works as a part-time teacher.

But financially, it’s hard. “The cost should not be this high,” she said.

Wholesale prices for Humira and Enbrel, the two most commonly used treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, known as RA, increased more than 70 percent in the past three years.

Since the first RA drug came to market a decade ago, nearly a dozen have been added. If basic economics prevailed, RA treatments and patients would have benefited from competition.

But, because of industry price-setting practices, legal challenges and marketing tactics, they haven’t. The first RA drug cost $10,000 a year. It now lists for more than $40,000 — even as alternatives have entered the U.S. market.

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“Competition generally doesn’t work to lower prices in branded specialty drugs,” said Peter Bach, director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Center for Health Policy and Outcomes.

Humira is the world’s No. 1 prescription drug by revenue. AbbVie manufactures and markets the drug and is on track to reach revenue from the product of $17 billion this year.

Other RA treatments are also among the top 10 drugs by revenue sold in the U.S. Enbrel, made by Amgen, ranks as No. 3. Remicade, by Janssen Biotech, is fifth. Some RA medications are approved for other conditions, including psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease and psoriasis.

About 1.5 million Americans have rheumatoid arthritis. The Bowers found some relief this year but not because prices dropped. Rather, Renda’s husband left his job at an engineering firm to work as a machinist at a medical device company that has an insurance plan with lower copayments. Her daughter was accepted into a clinical trial at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The trial covers the drug’s cost but not the associated expense of weekly travel, among other things.

Middlemen Benefit As Wholesale Price Rises

The complicated pharmaceutical supply chain in the United States means middlemen — such as pharmacy benefit managers (PBM) and, in some cases, hospitals and doctors’ offices — can gain financially by choosing more expensive drugs. That’s because PBMs usually get a rebate from the drugmakers on top of whatever profit they get from selling or administering the drug.

Those rebates often are based on a percentage of the list, or wholesale, price. So, the middlemen who get the rebates take in more money when drugmakers raise those sticker prices.

But who pockets the rebates? PBM firms, which oversee drug benefits for millions of Americans, say they share all or part of them with the insurers or employers who hire them. In some cases, the rebates go directly to specialty pharmacies, medical clinics or physicians dispensing the treatments.

The rebates rarely end up directly in patients’ pockets.

Those rebates affect the market in another way: They can make it harder for some companies to offer new treatments or they can thwart less costly rival products.

“We could give [our new drug] away for free and … it would still be more economically advantageous” for insurers and PBMs to send patients to Humira first, said Andreas Kuznik, a senior director at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, at a conference examining the cost and value of RA treatments.

Thomas Amoroso, medical director for medical policy at Tufts Health Plan, said at the same March conference that he has found drug industry sales representatives to be persistent in tracking how their drugs are positioned on plan formularies.

If insurers decide to add a new, lower-cost drug as the preferred alternative, “our Humira rep would be knocking on our door next week and saying, ‘Hey, that rebate we gave you? We’re taking it back,’” Amoroso said.

The roundtable at which they spoke was part of an assessment of RA drug pricing convened by the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, a nonprofit that evaluates the value of medical tests and treatments for insurers and other clients.

PBMs won’t disclose the rebates they provide to clients, but studies provide a clue. It’s a huge amount of money.

The Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm that advises major employers, said that rebates and other discounts paid to insurers, PBMs and the U.S. government for brand-name drugs grew from $67 billion in 2013 to $106 billion in 2015.

Most RA drugs are a complex type of medication, called biologics, which are made in living organisms. Nearly identical copies of biologics are called biosimilars. They hold the promise of lower prices, just as generic drugs did for less complex medications.

While several biosimilar RA treatments have won Food and Drug Administration approval, including replicas of Humira, Enbrel and Remicade, most are tied up in court battles over patents. And those biosimilars that have made it to market are now the subject of new areas of legal challenge.

In mid-September, Pfizer filed what will be a closely watched antitrust lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. The case alleges that J&J is using exclusionary contracts and the threat of withdrawing rebates to protect Remicade from Pfizer’s lower-priced biosimilar, Inflectra, which hit the market last winter.

J&J defends its contracts, saying they are “driving deeper discounts that will lead to overall lower costs.”

Arguments For And Against Rebates

Rebates are under increasing scrutiny, amid growing alarm about soaring prescription drug prices in the United States. But the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, the PBM industry’s trade lobby, said that complaints that rebates help fuel higher prices are unfounded.

These rebates, the lobby says, help save the health system millions of dollars by shifting dollars back to insurers or other clients, who can then use them to lower future premium increases. This year, it commissioned a study that found no correlation between rebates and the rising list prices of the top 200 brand-name drugs, suggesting higher rebates didn’t necessarily drive higher prices.

“The rebate system exists because [insurers, employers and other clients] want discounts,” said Steve Miller, chief medical officer for Express Scripts, one of the nation’s three largest PBMs.

Express Scripts offers clients an option to give patients the discount directly, but most choose not to, he said.

“While individual patients would get the benefit, everyone else’s premiums would go up [because the rebate savings would not flow back to the insurer],” Miller said. “Changing where the rebate goes doesn’t lower the price of the drug.”

But rebates play a role in what some patients pay at the pharmacy counter.

It stems from a simple calculation: whether a patient’s insurance copayment is based on a percentage of the drug’s wholesale price or the drug’s price after rebates are given to the middlemen.

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Heidi Barrett , a mother of five from Everett, Wash., faces a 10 percent copay whenever she or one of her four children who have RA, all of whom have been on medication for years, go for their monthly infusion of Remicade.

Although Barrett is shielded from much of the cost because she has good employer-based insurance through her husband’s job, the question of whether her monthly copayments are based on the wholesale price or the after-rebate price rankles her.

“I have asked that question of the insurance company. I’ve asked that of our union,” said Barrett, 47, a paralegal who isn’t working because she spends so much time on her children’s treatments. “I never got any answers back.”

Based on data analyzed by Bach’s group at Sloan Kettering to determine the cost of 100 milligrams of Remicade, it appears she is paying based on the pre-rebate price.

Here’s how that works: Barrett’s 18-year-old son recently received a 600 mg dose that required a copay of $655. That is close to 10 percent of Remicade’s average U.S. wholesale price for that dose of $6,450, the Bach analysis showed.

Barrett is not benefiting from the rebate that middlemen receive.

Rebates and discounts, however, drive down the price for pharmacy benefit managers, hospitals or doctors.

According to the analysis, the average net cost of a 600 mg dose is $4,140, once all discounts are calculated. If Barrett could use that base price as her copay, she would save more than $240. For her entire family — all her children and Barrett take similar doses — that equals a savings of $1,000 a month.

With her current insurance, Barrett quickly meets a yearly $12,900 deductible. She considers herself lucky that her insurer then picks up the drug’s full cost. But the experience has changed her motherly advice to her children, who are 10, 18, 19 and 25, about what to hope for in life.

“I tell them, you can be anything you want when you go grow up. But you need to go to a company with good health insurance, even before you look at the salary or whether you’ll be happy there, your first priority is health insurance,” Barrett said. “It’s an insane world we live in.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.