Trump Administration Does About-Face on Drug Rebate Safe Harbors: Opportunity Lost for Biosimilar Competition

It seemed like the best opportunity biosimilar manufacturers had in a long time to gain a competitive foothold upon launch. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar had promised a repeal of the drug rebate safe harbor as a key component of the Trump Administration’s move to obtain lower drug prices. Today, the Administration reversed its course, leaving the biosimilar industry hanging in the balance.

drug rebate safe harbor
HHS Secretary Alex Azar

According to reports, Health and Human Services found itself between a rock and a hard place. If the drug rebate safe harbor was removed, Medicare part D premiums could rise (plans would compensate for lost rebate revenue by raising consumer costs). There was also no guarantee that lower prices would be passed on to consumers at the pharmacy. Loss of drug rebates would also place great pressure on pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) to maintain or reduce net drug costs for their plan and employer clients. Accordingly, the removal of the drug rebate safe harbor was opposed by many stakeholders and not supported by enough interests (or with sufficiently influential lobbyists).

The result is a critical missed opportunity for increased access to biosimilars and their attendant savings. Drug rebates can only have value for payers if marketshare exists. In other words, a reference drug manufacturer who holds 100% marketshare before biosimilar launch can offer rebates on every prescription filled—that adds up to millions of dollars for individual PBMs and plans. A biosimilar drug without any marketshare at launch can offer a 50% rebate, but this is meaningless to the payer unless it captures significant marketshare immediately. Without rebates in the equation, biosimilars can compete against reference products on price alone, a much fairer fight for a new drug entering the fray.

Thus, the “rebate trap” will remain a barrier to access. This episode also makes one wonder which trial balloons given flight by the Administration will not come back to Earth. The idea of using the Federal Trade Commission to cut through patent thickets was recently floated and shot down by Texas Senator John Cornyn on the Senate Judiciary committee. We’ve heard about the plan to pin Medicare drug prices to either an international price index or to “most favored nations” pricing, or perhaps even both? Improving the utility of the Purple Book, to actually include useful information about key patent expirations and market exclusivity periods seems simple enough, but even this will take some doing. Interchangeability guidelines published in final form? Well, that should have been completed a couple of years ago.

Despite the approval of 21 biosimilars in the US, the industry does seem to be an awful lot to be worried about. Add in the looming concern in federal appeals court about whether the Affordable Care Act can withstand ongoing attacks concerning the individual mandate, which can then undercut the entire regulatory pathway for biosimilar approval. I know I’m not the only person shaking his or her head. The repeal of the drug rebate safe harbor was a real opportunity to turn the tide.

Anti-kickback Safe Harbors, Drug Rebates, Biosimilars, and FDA

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be issuing a series of posts to further analyze some of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) new Biosimilars Action Plan.

Drug rebate contracts Outside of patent litigation, the greatest barrier to biosimilar access is the current drug rebate contracts agreed to by pharmaceutical companies, health plans, and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). This contracting system persuades payers to maintain coverage of a heavily rebated biosimilar rather than providing access to a lower retail priced drug. Scott Gottlieb, MD, FDA Commissioner, has said that payers will need to start considering whether their rebate revenue on originator biologics are more valuable than the viability of the biosimilar industry overall. The real question is, what can the federal government do about drug rebate contracts?

Dr. Gottlieb believes that they are anticompetitive and cause higher drug prices over time; drug rebate contracts may be in direct conflict with the intent of the federal anti-kickback statues that allow them in the first place. In May, he and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Azar indicated that they may ask for a review of the safe harbors provided for drug rebates.

Anti-kickback Safe Harbors and Drug Rebate Contracts

The anti-kickback statute has been in place since 1971, but these specific safe harbors, protecting drug companies from anti-kickback laws, were introduced more than 2 decades ago. The federal government provides an excellent resource for information about these safe harbors at the Federal Register website. In brief, the safe harbors define exceptions to situations where organizations are receiving “remuneration” for providing goods or services. A rebate given as an incentive to provide a drug (i.e., on formulary) or to utilize more of a product (i.e., “performance rebates”) would currently qualify for safe harbor protection.

Last week, HHS moved on this issue, filing the proposed rule “Removal of Safe Harbor Protection for Rebates to Plans or PBMs Involving Prescription Pharmaceuticals and Creation of New Safe Harbor Protection.” Although the content of the filing has not yet been released, the title and previous statements on the matter by Secretary Alex Azar, do not bode well for drug rebate contracts and payers and the PBM industry tied to them.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national trade group for payers, supported a study supported that disputes one of these assertions. The study, conducted by Milliman, concludes that among part D plans studied, rebates did not independently cause higher drug costs. The greatest rebates were found in drug categories with the most competition from other brands (not generics). Instead, Milliman found that the use of rebates was in direct proportion to the degree of competition in a drug category. “Over the four-year period from 2013 to 2016, brand drugs with manufacturer rebates in 2016 had higher price trends than brand drugs without rebates,” according to the report. In other words, the rebates helped mitigate the price increases.

Although a bold move by the Department of Health and Human Services, removing drug-rebate safe harbors will be tricky. It will threaten the bottom lines of the PBM industry. Rebates comprise a significant portion of their revenue. Health plans also receive a portion of that revenue; they claim that these rebates are used to hold down premium costs. In any case, plans and insurers will need to evaluate how to account for less rebate monies but perhaps lower drug prices. For these reasons, we can expect quite a pushback from these sectors should the federal government proceed.

Specialty Drugs Mostly Under the Medical Benefit

Furthermore, all biosimilars (approved and investigational) are classified as specialty drugs by their cost, storage needs, and/or route of administration. This means that they are more likely covered under the medical benefit than the pharmacy benefit. It is thus also likely that the PBM’s specialty pharmacy units or their specialty pharmacy partners will be directly affected by any biosimilar-targeted changes in the anti-kickback laws.

The Trump administration also indicated the desire to move several drugs from coverage under Medicare part B to part D. Whereas Medicare does not currently negotiate prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers, private Medicare insurers can. This may enable price negotiation under part D providers and Medicare Advantage plans. Ironically, might this be a rebate-related negotiation?