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Huge Investigation Uncovers Possible Generic Drug Pricing Cartel

An investigative report by the Washington Post has uncovered an alleged cartel among generic drug manufacturers to fix the price of some 300 medications, adding new fuel to the debate about raging price increases in the pharmaceutical industry.

While a number of name-brand drug makers have been named and shamed for their massive price increases – sometimes hundreds or thousands of percent higher – the article looks at how something similar has been going on in the generic drug market.

A case that started as an antitrust lawsuit brought by two states has spurred a massive investigation into alleged price-fixing by at least 16 companies that make 300 generic drugs. Now 47 states are party to the lawsuit, seeking to recoup perhaps billions of dollars.

In addition, pharmacies and other businesses have filed their own lawsuits against the generic drug makers. One such suit documents huge price hikes – like a 3,400% increase in the price of an anti-asthma medication – and investigators believe that generic drug producers colluded to raise prices in tandem or not make their products available in some markets or through specific pharmacy chains.

The scale of the alleged collusion was summed up by Joseph Nielsen, an assistant attorney general and antitrust investigator in Connecticut, whose office has taken the lead in the investigation: “This is most likely the largest cartel in the history of the United States,” he told the Washington Post.

If the allegations are true, the parties affected run the gamut from consumers, who have high copays or high deductibles for their pharmaceuticals, to hospitals and insurance companies. And many health industry observers were surprised to learn the news, considering that generics are supposed to be a safety net for patients to ensure access to quality medications at a reasonable price.

Two former executives of one generic drug maker, Heritage Pharmaceuticals, have pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. They are now cooperating with the Justice Department.

The article describes the coziness among executives from competing generic drug makers and how they would allegedly collude to raise prices.

There has been no estimate of how much the generic drug companies allegedly overcharged over the years, but even if it’s a fraction of the annual sales of $104 billion a year, it would be substantial.

The drug makers that the Washington Post was able to reach denied the allegations.

Coordinated price hikes ‘almost routine’

The generics industry used to be highly competitive, according to the story, but over the years, things changed and suddenly allegedly “coordinated price hikes on identical generic drugs became almost routine,” the Post wrote.

The alleged price-fixing affects 300 generic drugs, according to the report. Generics account for 90% of the prescriptions written, however they only account for 23% of the total drug spend in the country, according to the Association for Accessible Medicines.

And still, the prices of on a benchmark set of older generic drugs in the Medicare prescription-drug program dropped 14% between 2010 and 2015.

But, for the 300 drugs in question, prices went up, according to the lawsuits. That’s why pharmacies have also come to the fore to sue. They were on the front lines when they started noticing marked increases of hundreds of percent in the prices of some generic medications.

If the collusion turns out to be true, it essentially reverses the possible gains when a generic drug enters the market. According to the Federal Drug Administration, prices fall up to 50% when a second generic enters the market. And once there are six or seven companies making the same generic drug, the price usually falls 75% from the original cost of the brand name pharmaceutical.


Drug Costs Starting to Drive Group Plan Inflation

Under the Affordable Care Act, group health insurance costs have been rising at a much slower rate than they had during the decade preceding its passage.

In fact, the rate of annual premium growth in the group market has hovered around 5% – more than half of what it was between 2001 and 2010. Also, health care’s share of the national economy actually fell from 17.4% in 2010 to 17.2% by 2013. However, that trend hasn’t lasted and in 2016 the share was 17.9%.

There has been a lot of debate about why rates have been increasing and some pundits say that if it were not for spiraling pharmaceutical costs, the rate of health insurance inflation would be lower.

While the drug industry would deny pharmaceutical costs are what’s driving health care cost inflation, the numbers show otherwise, according to an analysis by Modern Healthcare, an industry trade publication.

Here are the figures that drive home the point. Between 2013 and 2016, personal health care consumption rose 16.7%, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). This is what was driving that inflation:

  • Hospital spending: Up 15.5%
  • Professional services (mostly physician office-based care): Up 16%
  • Drug spending: Up 23.9%

Source: CMS

For 2018 group health plans, the inflation components of the three main areas could not be starker:

  • Hospital costs: 6.1% (from 2017)
  • Physician costs: 4.3%
  • Pharmaceuticals: 10.9%

Source: Segal Company

The situation may actually be worse than the numbers hint at. Retail drug sales don’t include the most expensive medicines – those delivered in hospital outpatient and physician offices. The CMS doesn’t track that data separately, but one can get a glimpse of what’s happening by examining the latest financial reports from major hospital systems.

Controlling drug costs

Prescription drug costs now account for about 17% of total U.S. healthcare spending and were the fastest rising component of that spending over the past year.

Drug costs have been difficult for health care providers and the insurance industry to tackle.

The pharmaceutical industry has been able to fend off government efforts to counter price hikes. It successfully lobbied Congress in 2003 to bar Medicare from negotiating prices in the new Part D program.

The industry has been aided by opposition from physician and patient advocacy groups, who fear that cost-benefit calculations will be used to cut them off from high-priced but effective medicines.

Benefits consulting firm Segal Company asked managed care organizations, health insurers, pharmacy benefit managers and third-party administrators to rank the cost-management strategies implemented by group health plans in 2017. Here are the top five:

    • Using specialty pharmacy management– This focuses on controlling costs of specialty drugs, many of which cost more than an annual health premium for a year’s worth of dosing.
    • Intensifying pharmacy management programs– This includes negotiating better pricing for commonly used drugs.
    • Contracting with value-based providers.
    • Increasing financial incentives in wellness plans.
    • Adopting high-deductible health plans.

These strategies show plan sponsors are looking to drive utilization to high-quality, low-cost providers in lieu of simply passing the costs on to their employees.


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