Race to the bottom

Pricing policies threaten pharmaceutical makers.

One of the biggest threats to the pharmaceutical industry in the years ahead will be pricing pressure, which is coming from all directions. In the United States, big pharmaceutical companies have already agreed to certain cost control measures as part of the healthcare reform legislation known as Obamacare.. The companies apparently agreed to these measures in return for the promise of new patients, but a few short years after the law’s passage and before all of the provisions have even taken effect, politicians in Washington have already begun discussing further price control measures. Meanwhile, Indian regulators have caused a fuss by granting a compulsory license to generics maker Natco Pharmaceuticals for permission to manufacture a generic version of Bayer’s lucrative cancer drug Nexavar. Indian authorities argued that the license was necessitated by the high cost of branded Nexavar, which keeps Indian patients from accessing this life saving treatment. Bayer, meanwhile, made the well-worn but true contention that pharmaceutical advancement depends on companies’ ability to charge premium prices for innovative treatments.

Lately the debate about proper pricing for pharmaceuticals has shifted to Europe, where drug makers’ profits are under attack from multiple angles. As part of the ongoing debate concerning the best way to rein in spending, many countries are looking at cutting drug prices as a source of savings in government budgets. In no country will these new price controls have more effect than in Germany; as much for the country’s leading role in the European economy as for the lost revenue. Due mostly to its economic strength, Germany has maintained pharmaceutical prices that were relatively robust when compared with its European neighbors. After years of debate, though, Germany has begun switching from a policy that mostly allowed free pricing towards implementation of a new regime that weighs the costs and benefits of each drug, similar to that of the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

In addition to looking at the potential clinical benefit of any new medicine, German regulators will also consider the price for each drug in neighboring countries. Germany’s great wealth means that most of its neighbors have weaker economies, making them a poor benchmark for prices. Indeed, many of these countries look to their larger neighbor to take the lead on pharmaceutical pricing. These ingredients could quickly lead to a race-to-the-bottom for drug prices as countries push each other lower and lower. Germany’s new pricing policies have already claimed at least one victim – diabetes patients in Germany will not have access to a promising diabetes treatment. Wary of the threat of price controls, and deterred by rules for defining the proper comparator, Eli Lilly and its German partner Boehringer Ingelheim decided not to launch their new drug Tradjenta (linagliptin) in the German market. While regulators are working out bugs that may lead to more straightforward pricing in Germany, the overall effect will be the same – consistent lowering of prices.

The race to the bottom in pharmaceutical prices has already caused unintended consequences, spawning an army of carry-trade speculators trying to buy drugs cheaply in one country for sale in another.In the UK, for example, regulators have a reputation for insisting on drug prices that are lower than in neighboring countries. This has led to export of drugs from the UK into neighboring countries where they are sold at premium prices. This practice has already led to shortages of some important drugs in the country, prompting the All-Party Pharmacy Group (APPG), a trade organization, to urge the government to take action. Although the dire drug shortages cited by the APPG are disputed, the potential clearly exists for patients to be denied life-saving medicines. The same problem is manifesting for different reasons in Greece. Due to the slow-motion collapse of the Greek economy, pharmaceutical prices have been slashed dramatically. This has been done to allow people to keep access to their medicines without further bankrupting the government. The unfortunate and unintended consequence of the price cuts is a very lucrative carry trade for pharmaceutical wholesalers.

Amid the clear need for national governments to control healthcare spending, it is unfortunate that wholesalers and distributors are siphoning off pharmaceutical profits. While pharmaceutical companies can justify their high prices with the need to conduct expensive research, the carry trade directly detracts from this goal. Society tends to hold healthcare providers to a higher standard than most capitalists, making the bald taking of profits from unhealthy people somewhat unpalatable. As a result, the European Commission has announced the beginning of an investigation into pharmaceutical parallel trade. Considering these factors, it appears that international pricing pressure and its consequences will be a major area of concern for pharmaceutical companies into the foreseeable future.

Dr. Jerry Isaacson is head of GlobalData healthcare industry dynamics.

Photograph: Getty Images

Dr. Jerry Isaacson is head of GlobalData healthcare industry dynamics.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”