By Beatrice Brown and Benjamin Rome
Prescription drug spending in the U.S. remains high and continues to rise, accounting for about 20% of national health expenditures. While generic competition is crucial for reducing drug prices, brand-name drug manufacturers can utilize several strategies to delay such competition by increasing the length of market exclusivity for their drugs.
Although brand-name drugs only account for 18% of all prescriptions filled, they comprise 78% of total drug spending. By contrast, equally-effective, interchangeable generic drugs can offer discounts of up to 80% off their brand-name drug counterparts.
Generic competitors can only be introduced after brand-name drugs have completed their period of market exclusivity, which typically lasts 12-16 years and is largely determined by the patents covering the drug. Brand-name pharmaceutical manufacturers have strong financial incentives to prolong this market exclusivity period and delay entry of generic products.
One commonly employed approach is for a brand-name manufacturer to obtain multiple patents—some issued after the original drug goes on the market—that protect different features of the same drug, such as how the drug is used, alternate chemical formulations, or delivery devices. This creates a thicket of intellectual property protections that generic manufacturers must challenge in court for their product to reach the market. These cases are often protracted and costly for generic manufacturers, but can also result in settlements, including some in which the brand-name manufacturer pays the generic manufacturer in cash or other deals to stave off generic entry (known commonly as “pay-for-delay” settlements).
In some cases, drug manufacturers introduce a slightly different version of their drug (like a long-acting formulation) with even more patent protections. Manufacturers then vigorously encourage physicians and patients to switch to the new version as time nears for generic entry of the original version, a strategy known as “product hopping.”
These strategies to delay generic competition have substantial consequences for patient out-of-pocket prescription drug costs and total prescription drug spending in the U.S. A recent study in Health Affairs found that Medicaid (which represents 10% of all US drug spending) spent an estimated $761 million over seven years on 31 drugs for which generic entry was delayed.
Perhaps more startling is how much the delay in generic competition for a single drug can cost the entire health system. In the case of glatiramer acetate, a commonly-used treatment for multiple sclerosis, the drug’s manufacturer effectively extended exclusivity of the brand-name drug by 2.5 years by introducing a new formulation with a different dosing regimen just before generic competition was supposed to begin. A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that this “product hop” resulted in $4.3 to $6.5 billion in excess U.S. health care spending since 2015.
As prescription drug spending continues to rise and concerns about patient affordability grow, ensuring that brand-name drugs face timely generic competition is essential to maintaining fair access to drugs at reasonable prices. Doing so will require policy changes that prevent manufacturers from unreasonably extending market exclusivity for their products while still encouraging incremental improvements to existing drugs that can improve patient care. So, what can be done?
The most obvious solutions involve re-examining the system that allows drug manufacturers to obtain numerous different patents on their drugs. This can be done a few different ways.
We know that many later-issued patents used to create thickets around prescription drugs end up being overturned in court (when there is no settlement). The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which reviews and approves patents, could reconsider its standards for issuing drug patents. An administrative procedure to review patents called inter partes review was created in 2011 to facilitate re-examination of patents after they have been issued. Firmer patent standards would make sure that new patents protect true innovations.
Another proposal would be to restrict drug manufacturers to only a single patent against generic entrants. This “one patent, one drug” option would still allow drug developers a monopoly period—during which they can recoup their research investments—but would prevent them from gaining additional patents to extend exclusivity once the drug is already on the market.
Delays in generic competition carry a sizeable financial burden for both patients and the health care system. This burden falls disproportionately upon certain patients who require high-cost, brand-name drugs. When generic competition is delayed, these drug prices remain high and access is restricted to only the patients who can afford them.
As a result, delayed generic competition can deepen already-existing health disparities. For example, mortality from opioid use disorder is associated with markers of lower socioeconomic status. Yet the manufacturer of Suboxone—a critical yet underused medication to treat opioid use disorder—delayed generic competition by heavily promoting a dissolvable film version over the original dissolvable tablet.
This move limited access to generic versions of the drug from 2013 until 2018, and Suboxone’s manufacturer recently agreed to a $1.4 billion settlement after the U.S. Justice Department filed charges that they had fraudulently promoted the film version as safer and less prone to abuse than the tablet version. This promotion led to continued use of the high-cost brand-name drug, and high costs may have contributed to underuse and non-adherence to this life-saving medication, particularly among socioeconomically-disadvantaged patients.
Timely generic competition will ensure fairer and more equitable access to prescription drugs at reasonable prices and that the benefits and burdens of innovation will be more fairly distributed without unduly harming certain patient populations.
Generic drugs have saved the U.S. health care system $1.6 trillion dollars over the last decade. However, to ensure these savings continue, generic drugs must be allowed to enter the market in a timely fashion, and current policies afford brand-name manufacturers a number of tools to undermine generic competition and sustain their monopoly periods.
Delays in generic competition are currently costing billions of dollars, harming patients, and increasing disparities and inequities in access to care. Changing patent policy to prevent manufacturers from using these strategies represents an important yet overlooked strategy to reverse rising drug prices and ameliorate the associated economic, clinical, and ethical ramifications.
Dr. Benjamin Rome is a primary care physician and health policy researcher. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow study prescription drug pricing and utilization with the Program On Regulation, Therapeutics, And Law (PORTAL) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He received his undergraduate degree in community health from Brown University, his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, and trained in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.