Pfizer’s Anticompetitive Suit: A Slippery Slope to Competitive Bidding?

When Pfizer first announced its lawsuit against Janssen’s parent Johnson & Johnson in September 2017, it pointed to exclusionary contracting, “anticompetitive” behavior of Remicade®’s maker as the reason for its very limited market access.

The lawsuit claimed that Janssen has withheld or threatened to withhold rebates if payers do not keep Remicade in an exclusive preferred position. The degree to which health plans knuckled under to these demands may only be inferred from the 3% marketshare Pfizer’s Inflectra® now holds. For these drugs, which are still typically covered under the medical benefit, “nonpreferred positioning” usually means no coverage. For drugs covered under the pharmacy benefit, this is not the case.

In August, the Eastern Court of Pennsylvania ruled against J&J in its request that the lawsuit be dismissed. While discovery in the case may be ongoing, we could not find mention of a resolution date for the suit.exclusionary contracting

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Eastern Court of Pennsylvania rules in favor of Janssen. In other words, exclusionary contracting was not an anticompetitive behavior. That means the status quo is intact, but some factors may affect this situation going forward. These include the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ desire to move part B drugs (the medical benefit) to part D (the pharmacy benefit) for Medicare beneficiaries.

The scrutiny on rebate contracting coming from several sectors, and lack of transparency, may also independently influence future use of these pharmaceutical company tactics. I helped conduct a market research project recently on a nonspecialty drug. As part of these interviews, we were asked by the client to inquire about the range of rebates they were receiving from competitor manufacturers. Their responses were requested as a range (e.g., 20% to 30%), not specific contract details, and we had no intention of providing reports of individual payer deals, only anonymous, aggregate information. We expected little to no response to that query, and that is exclusionary contractingexactly what we received.

Let’s discuss the other potential outcome, in which the Court rules in favor of Pfizer. That implies that this exclusionary contracting practice is indeed anticompetitive. If this is the case, we may be on a very slippery slope. What is the difference between payers and pharma companies engaging in a “1 of 1” contract when there are multiple potential products and a “1 of 2” contract? In both cases, drug makers are committing payers to anticompetitive behavior (as perhaps defined by the Court’s new precedent).

The preferred drug tier (whether preferred generics, preferred brands or whatever) is supposed to be for products with proven clinical, patient care, or economic advantages. Truthfully, payers rarely place medications in the preferred tier for reasons other than net costs or rebate contracting, which is based on marketshare.

Now add in the potential effects of the Administration’s desired shift to part D, where pharmacy benefit rules can be applied. That exposes injectable products that were shielded under Medicare part B to commonly applied formulary placement practices.

To be complete, Janssen’s strategy was not solely based on Remicade. It may be found to have bundled Remicade with other agents in deals to exclude Pfizer’s products. The Court may also react specifically to Janssen’s contract stipulation that threatens to withhold rebates connected to future use of the product, to increase its leverage.

However, if the Court determines that 1 of 1 or exclusionary contracting with rebates are the root of the anticompetitive behavior, why should 1 of 2 or even 1 of 3 contracts in a drug category with 5 similar agents be less so? This is the slippery slope that could undo rebate contracting, and push us towards a system that more resembles a competitive bidding process like in Europe. Alternatively, it could accelerate the move towards outcomes- and value-based contracting. The result could be a system-wide revamping of the drug formulary and the pharmacy–drug maker relationship.

In other biosimilar news…Sandoz has signed a licensing agreement with Abbvie, allowing it to market its biosimilar version of Humira in 2023. The agreement, as with Abbvie’s settlements with other biosimilar makers, halts all patent litigation with Sandoz in exchange for a licensing royalty paid to Abbvie.

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