Two weeks ago, the biotech sector imploded after a piece by the NYT'a Andrew Pollack drew attention to the 5000% increase in the price of a toxoplasmosis drug by specialty biotech firm Turing Pharma, whose CEO Martin Shkreli promptly became the poster child for greedy biotech executives who seek to profit on the back of people's misery by gouging the price of life-extending/saving drugs.
However, as we subsequently pointed out, what Shkreli did was merely an extension of the far more gradual if far more aggressive hiking in drug prices by every other company in the sector. Indeed, according to a Citron report in which the bearishly-focused research boutique "in the Twitter-storm furor over Turing’s recent one-drug price gouge attempt, the media has overlooked the reality that Martin Shkreli was created by the system. Shkreli is merely a rogue trying to play the gambit that Valeant has perfected."
Conveniently, Deustche Bank laid out just what the average wholesale acquisition cost increases by Valeant for its univers of drugs in the past 3 years.
We compiled the data to show that even as the US is supposedly drowning in deflation, Valeant had not gotten the memo, and its average annual drug price increase had risen from 21% in 2012 to a whopping 66% YTD.
In fact, as shown in the table below, Valeant had clearly put all its biotech peers to shame when it comes to enforced price increases.
Then late last week, after looking at Valeant soaring default risk as measured by the price of its blowing out CDS, soaring to over 30% even as its stock prices was surging, we wondered - does someone know something?
It appears someone may have known that this weekend, the same Andrew Pollack whose NYT article exposing Turing's 5000% price increase resulted in Hillary Clinton promising to cap specialty biotech prices if elected, has come back for round two and after taking aim at Shkreli and Turing, much to the chagrin of Bill Ackman, Pollack is now taking aim at the biggest culprit: Valeant Pharmaceutcals.
Here are some of the highlights from his just released article: "Valeant’s Drug Price Strategy Enriches It, but Infuriates Patients and Lawmakers" which is certain to put the biotech sector right back in the crosshairs of regulators and legislators, not to mention presidential candidates, just as the market was hoping the biotech pricing scandal was about to fade from collective memory.
J. Michael Pearson has become a billionaire from his tough tactics as the head of the fast-growing Valeant Pharmaceuticals International. And consumers like Bruce Mannes, a 68-year-old retired carpenter from Grandville, Mich., are facing the consequences.
Mr. Mannes has been taking the same drug, Cuprimine, for 55 years to treat Wilson disease, an inherited disorder that can cause severe liver and nerve damage. This summer, Valeant more than quadrupled its price overnight.
Yes, Mannes' out of pocket expenses will soar, from the $366 he paid in may to $1,800, but guess who will be charged for the balance of the price surge? Why you, dear taxpayers: "Medicare will now have to cover about $35,000 for the 120 capsules he takes each month."
Which is also why biotech companies have been able to get away with such prices hikes for so long: courtesy of "buffers" such as Medicare and Obamacare, their impact has been diluted on the back of everyone else.
Whom should US taxpayers thanks for this sad state of affairs, in which drug prices are literally hyperinflating? Two people. As we explained last week, most of the reason for soaring prices "devolves from a backroom deal cut when the Bush administration set in motion the Medicare Drug benefit and inexplicably (if you’re not a lobbyist) gave away the rights of the US Government - the nation's largest buyer of pharmaceuticals - to negotiate drug prices with suppliers."
The other person: well, the name Obamacare should give you a hint.
Back to the NYT piece which having laid out the strawman, next goes for the emotional angle:
"My husband will die without the medicine,” said his wife, Susan, who is now working a second part-time job to help pay for health care. “We just can’t manage another two, three thousand dollars a month for pills."
And then goes for the jugular:
Valeant’s habit of buying up existing drugs and raising prices aggressively, rather than trying to develop new drugs, has also drawn the ire of lawmakers and helped stoke public outrage against the growing trend of higher and higher drug prices imposed by big drug companies. This year alone, Valeant raised prices on its brand-name drugs an average of 66 percent, according to a Deutsche Bank analysis, about five times as much as its closest industry peers.
Just as we showed above. The bigger prolem is that now even Congress understands what is going on, and Valeant's "valiant" stonewalling of Congress where it has shown a dramatic determination to not testify, will fail in the coming days:
For example, after Valeant acquired Salix Pharmaceuticals this year, it raised the price of one Salix drug, the diabetes pill Glumetza, about 800 percent, in two steps.
“How can they just do this?” said Gail Mayer, a retired computer systems analyst on Long Island, who said her monthly supply of Glumetza went from $519.92 in May to $4,643 in August. For now, her insurance is covering most of that increase, but she is worried that it will stop covering the drug altogether, as others have.
“I’m sure it didn’t cost them $4,000 more to make,” Ms. Mayer said. “You don’t just go buy a bottle of milk and suddenly the supermarket charges you $100.”
The irony is that what Valeant and its peers are doing is quite logical in the framework of the broken US healthcare system, whose failure has only been compounded with the insurtance free-for-fall that is Obamacare.
Mr. Pearson has told analysts that it is standard industry practice to raise the price of a drug shortly before it faces generic competition, which Glumetza might face in February.
The drug industry argues that list prices are typically not what health plans pay after discounts and rebates are negotiated, and there is evidence that these discounts are increasing.
But even if patients are often shielded, the costs are paid by insurers, hospitals and taxpayers and lead to higher premiums and co-payments for everyone, critics say.
There is much more in the NYT piece but the kicker is the chart which will soon make its way to a Congressional deposition room and the latest kangaroo court in which Congress demands a corporate CEO explain how dare he take advantage of the idiotic laws passed... by Congress.
As the NYT calls it, the VRX price increases are "astronomical" - an adjective that will stick with the company throughout the now-inevitable congressional hearings:
For Prescription Drugs, Some Astronomical Price Increases - Valeant Pharmaceuticals has made a business of buying prescription drugs and raising their prices when possible. Now some members of Congress are demanding information from the company about price increases on two heart drugs, one of which is Isuprel. Some examples of price increases in Valeant’s drugs over the last several years:
What happens next: "last week, Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform demanded that Valeant be subpoenaed for information about big price increases on two old heart drugs that the company acquired in February."
After this NYT article, one can be certain that the House will get its subpoena, but the bigger irony is the following:
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, called for efforts to control “price gouging” after a public outcry over the actions of Turing Pharmaceuticals, which abruptly increased the price on a drug to $750 a tablet from $13.50.
Yes, it will indeed be great to have Hillary involved because as we said two weeks ago, we are very curious "to see how Hillary's populist outrage at [biotech price gougers] will be explained when the public realizes that it is only thanks to the benefits of socialized insurance programs such as Obamacare, of which Hillary is a staunch supporter, that such price gouging was possible in the first place."
Finally, just in case the rest of the biotech and specialty pharma industry thinks it is safe and that Valeant will be the scapegoat for everyone's shadow price increases, here comes Bloomberg with "Pfizer Raised Prices on 133 Drugs This Year, And It's Not Alone"
Pfizer Inc., the nation’s biggest drugmaker, has raised prices on 133 of its brand-name products in the U.S. this year, according to research from UBS, more than three-quarters of which added up to hikes of 10 percent or more. It’s not alone. Rival Merck & Co. raised the price of 38 drugs, about a quarter of which resulted in increases of 10 percent or more. Pfizer sells more than 600 drugs globally while Merck has more than 200 worldwide, including almost 100 in the U.S.
Pfizer's saving grace: it's average price hike according to Deutsche Bank was 9%, or "only" 5 times more than core inflation.
Will this be enough to placate Congress which is finally realizing the Frankenstein pricing monster the broken US healthcare system has unleashed? The answer will be revealed in the coming weeks.