More drugmakers commit to freezing US drug prices this year

Roche, Bayer and Merck KGaA on Friday announced that they would not raise prices on their pharmaceutical products in the US this year, making them the latest companies to freeze prices in the country amid ongoing pressure by the US administration to lower healthcare costs for consumers. The moves follow criticism by US President Donald Trump, who chastised Pfizer and unspecified "others" in a recent tweet, saying they "should be ashamed" for raising drug prices. 

In a statement, Roche said it has notified the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of its decision not to increase any prices for the remainder of the year. "We take decisions related to the prices of our medicines very seriously and our commitment to patient access and investment in future breakthroughs are reflected in our actions," the Swiss drugmaker said. 

Company spokesperson Anja von Treskow noted that Roche priced its multiple sclerosis treatment Ocrevus (ocrelizumab), approved by the FDA in March 2017, at a 25-percent discount to Merck KGaA's Rebif (interferon beta-1a), while Hemlibra (emicizumab-kxwh), also cleared in the US last year, is priced at less than half the cost of the standard treatment for haemophilia A with inhibitors. However, prior to its latest announcement, data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence showed that Roche raised the prices of nine medicines in early July, including the cancer drugs Herceptin (trastuzumab), Rituxan (rituximab) and Avastin (bevacizumab), after an earlier increase in January. Von Treskow stated that the annual average net price increase, weighted by sales, for Roche's Genentech unit, "was approximately 3 percent, in line with the medical consumer price index." 

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Meanwhile, Merck KGaA remarked "we make our own independent pricing decisions and currently plan no price increases in the US for the remainder of 2018," while Bayer indicated that it has let HHS Secretary Alex Azar "personally know of [our] decision" not to lift prices on any prescription medicines for the rest of the year. 

Merck & Co. is also among the drugmakers that have made similar commitments, backing up a recent assertion by Trump that companies would soon announce "voluntary massive" price cuts. Merck & Co. pledged this week not to raise the average net price across its portfolio of prescription products by more than inflation annually, and also cut the price on its hepatitis C drug Zepatier (elbasvir/grazoprevir) by 60 percent, as well as several other medicines by 10 percent. Commenting on Merck & Co.'s move, Azar suggested its decision was "a response to Trump's blueprint (to lower drug costs) and reflects the industry's understanding that the President is serious about bringing change to our drug markets." 

Meanwhile, Novartis also decided against lifting prices on its prescription products in the US for the rest of 2018, while Pfizer recently deferred planned increases for certain drugs scheduled to take effect this month. 

However, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Sam Fazeli suggested that in many cases, the actual impact of the price freezing commitments may be less than consumers might expect. "A lot of it is window dressing, it just sounds good," he said. Fazeli noted that Zepatier, for example, was already facing competition due to a shorter-course treatment from AbbVie, and that Merck & Co. probably would already have had to apply a large discount to the list price. Analyst Umer Raffat of Evercore ISI noted that since Merck & Co.'s new policy looks at average prices across its portfolio, it probably also leaves room for increases where the drugmaker would like to make them. 

In other recent initiatives to curtail US drug costs, Azar directed the FDA to develop a drug importation policy aimed at countering price hikes. Earlier this year, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced steps to further encourage competition in the generic drug sector, and the agency also released a plan on July 18 to facilitate the development, approval and market entry of biosimilars (for related analysis, see ViewPoints: FDA's biosimilar plan may need a boost from the private sector).  

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