Using Patents To Needlessly Drive Up Healthcare Costs: The Economic Impact Of Evergreening Drugs

from the evergreening-profits dept

One technique in the world of pharma that has started appearing here on Techdirt is "evergreening" -- making small changes to a drug, often about to come off patent, in order to gain a new patent that extends its manufacturer's control over it. The advantages for pharma companies are evident, but what about the public? What economic impact does evergreening have? That's what a fascinating new paper in the open access journal PLoS Medicine seeks to establish:

The researchers identified prescriptions of eight follow-on drugs issued by hospital and community pharmacists in Geneva between 2000 and 2008. To analyze the impact of evergreening strategies on healthcare spending, they calculated the market share score (an indicator of market competitiveness) for all prescriptions of the originally patented (brand) drug, the follow-on drug, and generic versions of the drug. The researchers then used hospital and community databases to analyze the costs of replacing brand and/or follow-on drugs with a corresponding generic drug (when available) under three scenarios (1) replacing all brand drug prescriptions, (2) replacing all follow-on drug prescriptions, and (3) replacing both follow-on and brand prescriptions.
And here's what they found:
Using these methods, the researchers found that over the study period, the number of patients receiving either a brand or follow-on drug increased from 56,686 patients in 2001 to 131,193 patients in 2008. The total cost for all studied drugs was €171.5 million, of which €103.2 million was for brand drugs, €41.1 million was for follow-on drugs, and €27.2 million was for generic drugs. Based on scenario 1 (all brand drugs being replaced by generics) and scenario 2 (all follow-on drugs being replaced by generics), over the study period, the healthcare system could have saved €15.9 million and €14.4 million in extra costs, respectively. The researchers also found some evidence that hospital prescribing patterns (through a restrictive drug formulary [RDF]) influenced prescribing in the community: over the study period, the influence of hospital prescription patterns on the community resulted in an extra cost of €503,600 (mainly attributable to two drugs, esomeprazole and escitalopram). However, this influence also resulted in some savings because of a generic drug listed in the hospital formulary: use of the generic version of the drug cetirizine resulted in savings of €7,700.
Obviously, this is just one study, in one area, although on the plus side it involves quite a long time period, and many patients. Despite its limitations, it nonetheless offers a useful first analysis of the economic impact of evergreening drugs. It's certainly an aspect of drug prescription that hospitals and doctors need to consider. As the study concludes:
Evergreening strategies have been successful in maintaining market share in Geneva, offsetting competition by generics and cost containment policies. Hospitals may be contributing to increased overall healthcare costs by listing follow-on drugs in their RDF. Therefore, healthcare providers and policy makers should be aware of the impact of evergreening strategies.
That suggests we can expect to see many more evergreened drugs in the future as highly-profitable compounds start to come off patent, and pharma companies search for ways of maintaining their high profit levels.

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Filed Under: drugs, evergreening, healthcare, patents, pharma


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Jul 2013 @ 10:17am

    Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Jul 18th, 2013 @ 5:16am

    Mine was a rhetorical question precisely because with expiration comes the right of others to exercise previously exclusive rights. To say or suggest that "evergreening" effectively extends exclusive rights associated with the original invention is, of course, manifestly a misstatement of the law.

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