Among the broad arguments for the rapid introduction of biosimilars is that they will increase patient access to expensive biologic therapies. This may be true theoretically from a patient cost-sharing perspective. If the biosimilar is priced sufficiently less than the originator product, health plans and insurers may elect to prefer the biosimilar and place it on a more affordable coinsurance or copayment tier.
This is not generally the case for the 2 nononcology biosimilar products launched to date. With shallow discounts for the biosimilars, the originator’s manufacturer can simply match the net cost through deeper rebates; the payer would have little reason to change the formulary tiering of the biologic.
The title is sort of a trick question. It assumes that there is a problem accessing oncology agents in our nation today. A 2015 study of 150 oncologists indicates that this is not the case. None of the respondents reported that obtaining Rituxan for their oncology patients (chronic lymphocytic leukemia or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) was a problem. The researchers also surveyed doctors in Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and Turkey. In Russia, 12% indicated that access to Rituxan was indeed difficult, as did 17% in Turkey. The researchers also stated that Russia and Mexico, compared with the other countries included in the study, had the greatest share of patients who did not have any insurance. Of course, it must be noted that the cost of Rituxan is far less in the other countries studied, compared with the US.
Another way in which the introduction of a Rituxan biosimilar could improve access is to alleviate present or future drug shortages. Drug shortages are commonly the result of a couple of factors: manufacturing plant slowdowns or shutdowns (often related to quality issues or the need for maintenance); lack of available drug components, such as its active ingredients or excipients; lack of profit driving generic manufacturers out of the business.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for tracking drug supply shortages, Rituxan has not been subject to any supply notifications, nor have any of the biologics. However, oncology has not been immune from drug shortages (e.g., daunorubicin liposomal injection, leucovorin injection). In a recent post, I emphasized that the need for anything less than a water-tight drug supply record can torpedo and sink biosimilar marketing efforts. In this instance, one can also make the case that oncology biosimilars like rituximab, trastuzumab, and bevacizumab could serve as a stalwart against potential biologic supply issues.
The outlook for the patient’s ability to pay for expensive medications is cloudier by the day. Access to these drugs is not an issue in the US today, but what about a year from now? How will efforts to change the pre-existing exclusion rules alter the landscape for covering any of the biologic products? Then, biosimilars may be in a real position to maintain or improve access.
The first oncology biosimilars are very close: Decisions from the Food and Drug Administration on biosimilars for trastuzumab and bevacizumab are expected in the third quarter of this year. Celltrion expects to file its 351(k) application for rituximab in June.