The Real Problem with Biosimilars

  • by: Peter Pitts |
  • 01/10/2019
In today’s Washington Post, our long-time pal Chris Rowland writes, “Health-care and government officials are growing concerned that the makers of the most advanced drug therapies are using scare tactics to ward off emerging generic versions of their products, a bid to protect profits that has enormous implications for the nation’s efforts to control health-care costs.”
There are two major problems with this statement. The first is that the manufacturers of biosimilars are those same “makers of the most advanced drug therapies.” The second issue is far more important – that’s not even the problem.
Why haven’t biosimilars gained a larger share of the market? There are a number of structural ecosystem issues that reflect misaligned incentives in the marketplace. The industry here isn’t just Big Pharma, but also “Big Payer.”
The insurance industry and prescription benefit managers (PBMs) engage in a dance called “exclusionary contracting” that often blocks a less-expensive product from replacing a costlier one on a patient’s insurance plan. Biological medicines (both brand and biosimilar) are purchased via a “buy-and-bill” process, where providers purchase medicines and then bill the payers (both private or public) once the medicines have been administered to the patients.
The net result is a “cost plus” payment system, where providers lose money when they prescribe a lower-cost product. The current system also incentivizes payers to prefer medicines that carry higher rebates rather than lower list prices, driving preferences for higher-priced products and anti-competitive behavior that blocks access to other medications.
Unsurprisingly, manufacturers are willing to raise prices and transfer the greatest list-price-based rebate value to middlemen to secure preferred formulary position at the expense of real free-market competition, while also limiting the therapeutic options of physicians and patients.
“Facts,” as John Adams reminds us, “are pesky things.” Blaming Big Pharma may resonate with politicians and the press – but it’s not going to advance the worthy cause of biosimilars. As they say in Japan, don’t fix the blame, fix the problem.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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