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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.