Lessons From a New Report: Do More Biosimilar Approvals Necessarily Mean Greater Access to Biologics?

By 2025, biosimilars may well fulfill their potential in the US, and we will be awash in biosimilars approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which have cleared patent issues through expiration, settlement, or litigation. Beyond meaning that we will finally have several adalimumab biosimilars on the market and perhaps even an approved pegfilgrastim biosimilar, access to biosimilars will almost certainly be widespread at that time.

Biosimilar concept art.5-15-2017A new study from Avalere, funded by the Biosimilars Council, was released this week, and its principal finding is that by 2025, an additional 1.2 million US patients could gain access to biologics owing to the availability of biosimilars. The implication is that current restrictions by private, Medicaid, and Medicare Advantage plans on the use of expensive biologics will be eased once less-expensive biosimilars come to the market and that lower costs will result in more patients being able to utilize biologics than before.

Although I’m not aware of any studies specifying the percentage of the insured population (public or private insurance) who do not have access to biologics, we do know a good deal about the way payers approach them in general. One of the greatest priorities of plans and insurers is to manage the specialty pharmaceutical category. The stated goal is to ensure that patients have access to appropriate therapy (not all therapy). The most common way to achieve this is through the use of stringent prior authorization criteria or step therapy. For noncancer biologics, virtually no payer or purchaser (including government and employers) would allow first-line access of a biologic without trials of conventional treatment first. This is done to limit costs of treatment as well as to mitigate the risk of adverse events.

Another routine mechanism for controlling costs of these agents is to leverage their net costs by offering preferred or exclusive coverage to one or two agents in a category. For patients in the US, this means that the vast majority of insured patients may have access to 2 or 3 anti-TNF agents, but not all of them. The introduction of lower-cost biosimilars may influence this, as it could be possible that payers include a wider choice of biologic medications once biosimilars for all of these products are available. The reference products may also benefit, in that the competition-driven lower costs may well allow for wider choice of medicines within a class.

It is questionable whether lower costs will permit the wholesale removal on restrictions of biologics in a category. Will a biologic be available for use as a first-line agent rather than a third-line agent? The major professional autoimmune disorder societies have not written clinical guidelines that urge biologics use far earlier. That is partly because each of these agents carries significant, serious risks, which cannot be minimized. They may occur infrequently, but they can be devastating in patients unfortunate enough to experience them.

In the Avalere report, researchers cite the European experience, in which “introduction of biosimilars led to an average increase in utilization, compared to the year prior to the biosimilar entrance, of 32%.” If that did occur in the US, it would be a boon to manufacturers.

They pointed to the lower costs being the primary driver of greater use. Gillian Woollett, MA, DPhil, Senior Vice President, Avalere Health, confirmed via Email that “[increased biosimilar availability] will disproportionately benefit women and low-income individuals. The assumption is two-fold: That biosimilar competition will lead to better access due to lower-cost products (either the biosimilar or reference biologic or both). Additionally, competition between biosimilars and their reference products is expected to improve tiering through placement on lower tiers, higher rates of coverage, earlier use, etc.”

Their results were based on an evaluation of seven blockbuster biologics in particular: adalimumab (Humira®), bevacizumab (Avastin®), etanercept (Enbrel®), infliximab (Remicade®), pegfilgrastim (Neulasta®), ranibizumab (Lucentis®), and rituximab (Rituxan®). All of these products are expected to be marketed by 2025, although patent litigation could, of course, change this scenario.

The present assumption is that a significant portion of nonoptimized utilization of biologics like Humira is due to high cost-sharing requirements. With the wider availability of biosimilars, special biosimilar tiers (with relatively lower cost sharing) may be a good bet in the future. Dr. Woollett stated, “While the analysis doesn’t specifically assume the increased utilization due to specific actions (we don’t ascribe X% better access to more biosimilars tiers, etc.), we do assume that payers respond with efforts to incent utilization of either the biosimilar or the reference biologic (depending on contracting) and that leads to better access.”

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