Implications of UnitedHealthcare’s Preference of Remicade and Neulasta to Their Biosimilars

In a significant coverage move, UnitedHealthcare (UHC) has signaled that its commercial and Medicaid medical policies on infliximab and pegfilgrastim have changed direction in favor of the reference drugs.

UnitedHealthcare and biosimilars

Effective July 1, 2019, approximately 22.5 million commercial and 6 million Medicaid UHC members will not be able to access these biosimilars without trying the reference agents first (virtually eliminating biosimilar use). Both infliximab and pegfilgrastim are covered generally under the medical benefit as office-based infusions, and preferring Remicade® and Neulasta® (including OnPro®).

This move is important for a few reasons. First, it reverses UHC’s previous position, which preferred the biosimilars over the two originator products.

Second, it promotes a prior authorization practice that makes little sense—since the biosimilar and reference products are expected to work in the same way and produce similar outcomes, why would a patient who fails Remicade then be given Renflexis® instead of a different biologic medicine like adalimumab, ustekinumab, or others?

Third, it implies that both manufacturers have further reduced the net cost of these drugs to UHC and its customers, undercutting the current deals offered by the biosimilar manufacturers. If accurate, this is a positive development in that infliximab and pegfilgrastim prices are continuing to come down due to competition. It would also indicate that Amgen, maker of the pegfilgrastim originator Neulasta, is beginning to defend its prefilled syringe market more aggressively. This is significant, because Amgen had been more focused on defending the marketshare of its on-body injector (Onpro), which is dominant. Alternatively, Amgen may be bundling its filgrastim and pegfilgrastim products more effectively. Coherus and Mylan had previously announced pricing that would be one-third less than the list price of Neulasta. Coherus had specifically indicated that it would be seeking targeted deals with payers to ensure at least parity position for its prefilled syringe product Udenyca®. It did not, however, mention UHC as one of those payers.

Fourth, this move puts a further dent into the sustainability of the US biosimilar market. Obviously, preferring the originators will make access to their biosimilars considerably more expensive for patients. It can only promote greater price cuts by the competing brands and thus reduce profit margins for the biosimilar manufacturers. In the US, biosimilar makers need a little encouragement to stay in the market, as very few have had positive experiences to date (e.g., Pfizer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Momenta, Apobiologix to name a few).

No one denies the benefits of the increased competition meaning a halt to price increases and significantly lower net costs, but those benefits need to be extended across other biologic categories. Without a viable biosimilar industry, access to lower-cost biologics can only happen through price controls.

A Conversation With Doug Long, IQVIA

Doug Long, Vice President of Industry Relations at IQVIA (formerly QuintilesIMS), spoke with us about some of the intracacies of the filgrastim and pegfilgrastim marketplace, and regarding improving access to biosimilars in general. 

Doug Long
Doug Long, IQVIA

BR&R: Do you think interest by manufacturers in biosimilars is gaining or waning at this time?

Doug Long: It’s somewhere in between those two. A lot of people are staying in the game to see how it plays out. Maybe discouraged most accurately describes their feelings at this time. They are discouraged, because there are 17 approved products but only 5 are available. And the uptake of those on the market is not that great, particularly compared with the uptake in Europe.

BR&R: I can see how manufacturers and payers would be discouraged right now. You’re right, in the European market, we’ve seen a great deal of uptake and significant discounting as well. So many factors affect biosimilar coverage and uptake. It may also relate to the individual biosimilar’s disparate marketplace situations.

DISTINCT MARKETS FOR BIOSIMILAR DRUGS

In the US, based on the utilization numbers seen today, do you believe the infliximab, filgrastim, or pegfilgrastim markets will best characterize how other biosimilars (e.g., Avastin® or Herceptin) will perform when available?

Long: Well, with the filgrastim molecule, you need to look at both filgrastim and pegfilgrastim, and their routes of administration (prefilled syringes and on-body injectors). Granix® and Zarxio® have the majority of the dollar share on the filgrastim side. It’s too early to tell on the pegfilgrastim side, though Amgen has a 61% share of that Neulasta® molecule with its Onpro® formulation. The addressable market for the molecule is really only the remaining 39%.

You also have to make a distinction between how much of the market is controlled by the pharmacy benefit managers compared with the hospital group purchasing organizations (GPOs) or buying groups. Most of the filgrastim and pegfilgrastim is controlled by the hospital buying groups, and that’s also going to be the case for the cancer-treating biosimilars. There’s no doubt in my mind that when Humira® or Enbrel® are available, the PBMs will embrace the biosimilars. There are just so more complexities on the hospital side of the market that it makes it more difficult for them to move towards the biosimilars.

DEEPER INTO THE FILGRASTIM/PEGFILGRASTIM SCENARIOS

BR&R: There’s an interesting situation brewing in the filgrastim market. The success of Granix and really Sandoz’s Zarxio penetrating the market has contributed significantly to the drop in total sales revenues for filgrastim sales combined. However, how much of this decrease is attributable to migration to pegfilgrastim, and Neulasta Onpro in particular?

Long: Sure, look at their revenues today. Filgrastim is at $611 million in annual sales and pegfilgrastim is at $4.3 billion. Of that $4.3 billion, Onpro accounts for 61%.

BR&R: At Coherus’ fourth-quarter earnings conference call, their CEO indicated that he thought the Onpro marketshare might be vulnerable to the pegfilgrastim biosimilar, which is available today in prefilled syringes. Obviously, that would mean selling Undenyca® at a more enticing price, below the 33% discount currently offered. Do you think that Onpro sales erosion is likely or does the formulation offer real value?

Long: That could work, but the thing about Onpro is that when you finish your chemotherapy for the week, they put the injector on you and you don’t have to go back to the doctor’s office for a pegfilgrastim injection the next day. That’s one of the reasons it is as popular as it is—it reduces hospital and doctor expenses at the end of the day, and is more convenient for the patient.

BR&R: Biosimilar manufacturers like Coherus have expressed interest in developing its own on-body injector for its biosimilar. It seems to present distinct advantages. Does that mean that the biosimilars will be relegated to fighting only for that prefilled syringe market, the remaining 39% of utilization?

Long: It’s probably too early to say. Fulphilia® has only been marketed since July, and the other one [Udenyca] was launched only recently. We’ll have to see what kind of uptake it gets. Also, we’ll have to see what happens when other players come to the market. The more drugs you have available, the more share erosion from the originator you’ll likely see. Yet that did not happen with Remicade…

BR&R: That may be more of a special situation, considering the actions taken by Janssen Biotech to prevent coverage of both Pfizer and Merck’s products.

The filgrastim/pegfilgrastim markets are also different for that reason: Amgen did not aggressively defend their market share on the prefilled syringe originator products (i.e., Neupogen® and Neulasta). Rather, they focused on getting conversions to Onpro. So the biosimilar manufacturers were not facing aggressive defensive tactics, like those employed by Janssen. 

Long: Yes, but they will defend Onpro as much as they can.

BR&R: And Amgen established Neulasta and the Onpro formulation at the same price point.

Long: It made sense. It was a good defense mechanism.

BR&R: It does force the biosimilar manufacturers to work harder to gain business.

AN UNCLEAR FUTURE

BR&R: The Administration has several initiatives that may directly or tangentially affect the biosimilar market. These include the Medicare International Pricing Index, the move to place Part B drugs into Part D (and allow step therapy and other UM tools), the reevaluation of drug rebate safe harbors, and of course, the individual components of the Biosimilar Action Plan. Do you think this will ultimately result in artificial price deflation? Would that be helpful or harmful to biosimilar makers?

Long: That’s a question that I really don’t have an answer for. Who knows what’s going to happen? People have started to make moves to reduce WAC prices, like Amgen on their PCSK9 inhibitor and Gilead on their hepatitis C treatment. Gilead created an “authorized generic” to reduce its price dramatically.

People are starting to play around with it. Maybe to get adopted, a biosimilar maker may actually have to raise their drug’s WAC price higher than the originator, and then give a larger rebate.

Coherus Gets FDA Approval for Its Pegfilgrastim Biosimilar

With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval today of Coherus Bioscience’s Udenyca™ (pegfilgrastim-cbqv), the second pegfilgrastim to compete with Amgen’s Neulasta®, much attention will be now focused on the company’s November 8 earning call.

The FDA approved Udenyca on the basis of a supportive analytical similarity package, but with phase 1 data only. Over 600 healthy subjects were given the agent to test its pharmacokinetic, pharmacodynamic, and immunogenicity safety.

We should learn a great deal by the end of the week about the nature of the competition for the injectable pegfilgrastim marketplace into 2019. In the press release announcing the approval, the company said it will reveal its launch plans, including pricing, during its week’s call. On Monday, November 5, we should hear the first information about whether Mylan’s first-to-market entry, Fulphila®, has gained some traction against the injectable form of Neulasta. Mylan launched Fulphila at the end of July.

In a previous post, we discussed how Amgen’s Neulasta Onpro® patch has already captured upwards of 80% of the pegfilgrastim business. Because of the convenience of the patch formulation, it would be surprising if Onpro’s share of market eroded significantly. However, Amgen must ensure that the net cost difference between the biosimilars and Neulasta Onpro is not noteworthy. Otherwise, payers’ can be expected to try to disadvantage Onpro through step edits or greater patient cost sharing. That would take a sizable bite out of Amgen’s large slice of the $4 billion pegfilgrastim pie.

The FDA approved Udenyca for the following indication: to decrease the incidence of infection, as manifested by febrile neutropenia, in patients with non-myeloid malignancies receiving myelosuppressive anti-cancer drugs associated with a clinically significant incidence of febrile neutropenia. It was not approved for the mobilization of peripheral blood progenitor cells for hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. This indication language does not differ from that for Fulphila. Neulasta has the additional indication of increasing survival in patients acutely exposed to myelosuppressive doses of radiation.

Undenyca was also approved for sale in the EU, although Coherus has not launched there, awaiting a marketing partner.

Pfizer Gets FDA’s Green Light on Its Filgrastim Biosimilar

Pfizer's Biosimilar Filgrastim
FILE PHOTO – The Pfizer logo is seen at their world headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., August 1, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

On July 20, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the second biosimilar version of filgrastim. Pfizer’s filgrastim biosimilar is named Nivestym™ (filgrastim-aafi).

The originator product, Amgen’s Neupogen®, has steep competition from two other products (Sandoz’s Zarxio® [filgrastim-sndz] and Teva’s Granix® (tbo-filgrastim]). Granix was approved as a follow-on biologic, before the biosimilar pathway was implemented.

The FDA granted Nivestym the following indications:

  • To decrease the incidence of infection, as manifested by febrile neutropenia, in patients with nonmyeloid malignancies receiving myelosuppressive anti-cancer drugs associated with a significant incidence of severe neutropenia with fever.
  • For reducing the time to neutrophil recovery and the duration of fever, following induction or consolidation chemotherapy treatment of patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
  • To reduce the duration of neutropenia and neutropenia-related clinical sequelae, e.g., febrile neutropenia, in patients with nonmyeloid malignancies undergoing myeloablative chemotherapy followed by bone marrow transplantation (BMT).
  • For the mobilization of autologous hematopoietic progenitor cells into the peripheral blood for collection by leukapheresis.
  • For chronic administration to reduce the incidence and duration of sequelae of severe neutropenia (e.g., fever, infections, oropharyngeal ulcers) in symptomatic patients with congenital neutropenia, cyclic neutropenia, or idiopathic neutropenia.

Although a launch date was not announced for Pfizer’s filgrastim biosimilar, the company’s press release stated that “Nivestym is expected to be available in the US at a significant discount to the current wholesale acquisition cost (WAC) of Neupogen.”

Rather than competing aggressively for the filgrastim market, Amgen seems to be focusing its efforts on its pegfilgrastim brand, a longer-lasting version. Specifically, it is seeking to move its utilization to the Onpro formulation of Neulasta®. The first biosimilar to pegfilgrastim was approved in June (Mylan and Biocon’s Fulphila™).

Convincing Two Main Providers the Key to Pfizer’s Retacrit® Success

An unusual market situation awaits Pfizer’s new biosimilar epoetin, one that few approved medications has to face. Not only does Retacrit® need to pass muster with payers like health plans and insurers, which we assume it will, but Retacrit will need to be accepted by the two 800-pound gorillas of the kidney dialysis field as well.

epoetin use in kidney centersRetacrit and Dialysis Centers

The different part of this discussion is that providers are not usually so concentrated except in the treatment of the rarest diseases. Cancer medications are utilized by independent treatment centers throughout the country. Biosimilar agents like infliximab are also used throughout the nation by hospitals, large medical groups, and solo practices. In the case of epoetin, its primary use is in anemia related to kidney dialysis. The vast majority (85%) of kidney dialysis centers are owned by one of two networks, Fresenius Medical Care North America and DaVita Kidney Care. According to a report by Healio, Fresenius accounted for 42.6% of the total patient market in 2017, and DaVita is just behind, with 42.0% of the 453,000 patients receiving dialysis services. In other words, get buy-in from these companies and the payers, and Pfizer would have a chance to gain significant share of the epoetin market.

kidney dialysis centers
Source: https://www.healio.com/nephrology/practice-management/news/online/%7Bd894132b-b577-435e-8dec-401cd89d1b1e%7D/the-largest-dialysis-providers-in-2017-more-jump-on-integrated-care-bandwagon

Nephrologists seem to be onboard, in general. The results of national survey of nephrologists conducted in March 2018 confirm this. According to the research, only one in five respondents would be averse to switching to the biosimilar. One barrier to use may exist, however, on the provider side. The long-acting agents may be preferred by some. These include Amgen’s darbepoetin alfa (Aranesp®) and Roche’s Mircera® (methoxy polyethylene glycol-epoetin beta). To the extent that nephrologists may be less willing to use short-acting biosimilar instead of the more expensive long-acting brand may define Pfizer’s success with Retacrit. This is somewhat similar to the situation brewing with the use of injectable biosimilar pegfilgrastim (once approved and available) and the Neulasta® Onpro® delivery system. The share of use of the long-acting erythrocyte-stimulating agents has been increasing.

On May 15, 2018, Pfizer’s epoetin biosimilar Retacrit was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the first biosimilar competitor to Epogen® and Procrit®. Retacrit is not officially available yet.

In other related biosimilar newsPfizer announced that the Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has recommended marketing approval for its biosimilar version of trastuzumab.

Apotex and its Apobiologix division has claimed a significant prize—the first pegfilgrastim biosimilar approval in Western markets. None have been approved in the US or EU to date. Health Canada granted marketing authorization to the company on June 1. The new drug will be called Lapelga™.