Today’s New York Times reports that PHARMA has finally staked out their agenda in health care reform – avoiding cost controls, and keeping generics off the market.

An undisclosed deal announced this past Sunday between the drug industry, Sen. Baucus, and the Obama administration would help pay as much as half the cost of brand name drugs for seniors in the costly ‘donut hole’ under Medicare. (Currently, a Prescription Drug Plan regulated under Medicare Part D pays three fourths of the first $2,700 in yearly prescription costs, but then stops at the ‘donut hole.’ This forces the consumer to pay all of the next $3,454 in costs out of pocket. Medicare Part D coverage starts back up when the drug costs exceed $6,100.)

Due in part to the continually rising costs of prescription drugs, a fourth of Medicare beneficiaries hit their donut hole. One out of seven of the seniors who hit the donut hole then stop taking their medications due to cost.

A White House spokesperson notes that the deal would save these elderly consumers $30 billion over the next 10 years, but that an additional $50 billion would go to the federal government over the next decade, possibly in the form of rebates to Medicaid or other federal programs purchasing drugs.

While proposals to control or reduce drug costs are needed, our experience with drug pricing fraud by the drug industry teaches us that reliable and transparent price benchmarks are needed to keep this proposal from being a sham. For instance, a nationwide class action lawsuit by PAL members revealed that drug wholesaler McKesson Corp. manipulated reported prices that were used as reimbursement benchmarks, which cost Medicaid, private insurers, and consumers over $7 billion from 2001 to 2005. Another PAL class action lawsuit revealed that over 13 of the largest drug manufacturers engaged in a scheme between 1991 and 2004 to inflate their reported reimbursement prices on doctor-administered drugs, costing Medicare part B, insurers, and consumers billions of dollars.

Finally, a government report from 2006 showed that even when the federal government negotiates contracts with drug makers that guarantee federally funded community health centers the best possible price, the drug industry failed to comply with the contracts, costing hundreds of millions of dollars each month, and possibly billions of dollars a year. In this case, lax monitoring and enforcement by HHS left community health centers and other front-line government programs with little recourse.

These lawsuits and other lessons illustrate the need for full transparency, to allow consumers advocates to monitor progress, and ensure that Medicare consumers truly benefit from this proposal.

In addition to heading off cost controls, the other prong of the drug industry’s agenda is to shoulder aside their generic competitors. As pointed out in today’s Wall Street Journal, this ‘discount program’ may actually discourage seniors on Medicare from switching to less expensive generic drugs.

PHARMA has also come out against legislation that would prevent brand name drug companies from paying their generic rivals to delay bringing new generics to the market. These “pay-for-delay” settlements have become common since 2005, and have cost consumers and insurers an estimated $12 billion a year in lost savings.

For instance, the current class action lawsuit by PAL member AFSCME District Council 37 has challenged multiple settlements between Cephalon Corp. and generic manufacturers Teva, Barr, Mylan, and Ranbaxy. These settlements, totaling up to $136 million dollars, have stopped all four of these generic companies from bringing a generic version of the drug Provigil to the market.

The House version of the bill to prevent “pay-for-delay” settlements, HR 1706, passed an important hurdle on June 3rd, when it was approved by the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, and sent to the full Committee on Energy and Commerce. The NY Times reports that the Senate version of the bill, S. 369, is poised for a vote this week.

The Times article noted that President Obama’s budget criticized these settlements as “anticompetitive agreements” that keep generic drugs off the market. The FTC, which continues to challenge the anti-competitive nature of these settlements in court, sees consumers being harmed. FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said that allowing these settlements to continue would cost consumers tens of billions of dollars in the next decade. According to the Times, Mr. Leibowitz cautioned that

“Drug companies are lobbying furiously against the legislation because they want to preserve their monopoly profits at the expense of consumers.”

The Times article also made clear that Pharma has launched their own dis-information campaign on the bills. Pharma made the outrageous claims that these anti-competitive agreements benefitted consumers because they “avoided litigation and allowed generic drugs to enter the market before drug patents expired.”

However, in case after case (K-Dur, Tamoxifen, Cipro) these settlements have prevented generic versions of brand name drugs from becoming available to consumers. How?

These settlements, often for many millions of dollars, allow brand name companies to ‘buy-off’ their generic competitors with multi-million dollar payments that are far in excess of the profit margin on a new generic drug. This lets the brand name drug continue its exclusive sales, guaranteeing them hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars free from competition.

These “pay-for-delay” settlements are likely to arise in current litigation on the validity of patents for the drugs OxyContin, Protonix. and Wellbutrin.

You can help. Please contact your Congressperson or Senator, and urge them to support HR. 1706/S. 369. If you are part of an organization, please contact us to sign on to a letter of support of these bills.