Consumer groups battle Eshoo’s health care amendment

San Mateo County Times/ Bay Area News Group
The Insider

Consumer groups are still hoping to persuade Congress during this month’s health care reform negotiations to make it easier to create generic versions of drugs known as biologics.

Biologic drugs are created through biological, as opposed to chemical, processes — researchers use plant and animal cells to grow new molecules. They are far more complex than most chemically produced drugs and much harder to duplicate. The top-selling biologics include cancer drugs such as Avastin and several drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and anemia.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, authored an amendment, which was added to the House version of the health care reform bill in July, that would grant biotech firms a 12-year period of market exclusivity on biologics, more than twice the 5-year period that other drugs receive. A similar measure is in the works in the Senate.

Critics charge Eshoo with selling out the public on behalf of the biotech industry, a powerful special interest on the Peninsula and a major contributor to Eshoo’s campaigns. Eshoo claims she’s trying to balance the interests of consumers and biotech companies, which spend billions developing these drugs.

Sarah Rimmington, an attorney for consumer group Essential Action, called Eshoo’s amendment an “unjustified price gouge of the American public.” She said 12 years of market exclusivity is far too long and called into question the pharmaceutical industry’s claim that biologics are far more expensive to produce than other kinds of drugs.

Rimmington also blasted a clause in the amendment that critics claim would allow biotech companies to restart their 12-year window every time they make minor adjustments to their drugs — combining two types of drugs, for instance, or providing them in different doses — a process known as “evergreening.”

Consumer groups were recently joined in the biologics fight by student groups, including the American Medical Student Association and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. In a statement issued by the student groups on Monday, Yale University medical student Sara Crager said that, as a future biomedical researcher, “I want the fruits of my research to be available as widely as possible as soon as possible.”

Eshoo’s office disputes the notion that biologics are no more expensive to produce than other drugs. The 12-year window is based on the average amount of time a biologic stays on the market before its patent expires, staffers say.

If biotech companies sink billions into biologics research, only to see generic versions, or biosimilars, appear on the market too quickly, they will lose their incentive to do that research, slowing down the development of potentially lifesaving drugs, proponents of the amendment argue.