Richmond Times Dispatch: Matthew Lane column: Patent reform is critical to lowering prescription drug costs


It is no secret that high prescription drug costs are one of the top issues on the minds of voters in Virginia and across the country. With Americans paying more than citizens of other high-income countries for the same prescription drugs, affording medication is a major burden for too many families.

For years, the major pharmaceutical companies have had free rein to raise the prices on their medications with few consequences because, in many cases, their products are protected by government-sponsored monopolies brought about by Big Pharma’s shameless abuse of our patent system.

Big Pharma uses and abuses the U.S. patent system to rake in profits. These companies skirt the rules and take advantage of loopholes in the system, and they spend millions of dollars to protect their products from competition with generic or biosimilar alternatives. The result of these unscrupulous antics are the devastated bank accounts of many American patients.

Brand-name drugmakers abuse the patent system to prolong the life span of their product monopolies by creating veritable thickets of patents around their products. These layers of additional patents protect the product’s government-sanctioned monopoly for additional periods of time, far longer than what is intended. In doing so, these companies prevent generic and biosimilar alternatives from entering the market for years — and without competition, they can continue to hike prices.

Perhaps the best example of Big Pharma’s patent abuse comes from AbbVie and its flagship drug, Humira. Humira is one of the most expensive — and most profitable — prescription drugs in the world; it brings AbbVie more than $18 billion a year. In Humira’s lifetime, AbbVie has filed 247 patents on just this one drug. The original patent expired in 2016, but AbbVie has successfully extended the patent life on Humira until 2034, buying the drug maker nearly two decades worth of time to generate billions more in profit. In countries that did not allow this patent abuse, competition entered the market last year and Humira’s prices went down by as much as 80%.

Reforming the patent system to allow for more competition from generics and biosimilars is key to ending Big Pharma’s price hikes. Studies have shown that competition reduces prices — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has indicated that generics and biosimilars allow patients, on average, to pay just one-fifth of Big Pharma’s sticker price.

Fortunately, lawmakers in both parties are stepping forward with important ideas and taking action. Just recently, U.S. Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., introduced the Biologic Patent Transparency Act, a bill that would seek to reduce patent abuse by creating increased transparency in the biologic prescription drug market. This is an important step toward ending patent abuse.

Spanberger and Reed’s bill would require drugmakers to disclose the patents that protect their biologic medications, allowing for a higher degree of transparency that competitors can use to plan the development of their own biosimilar medications.

To be clear, there is much more work that will need to be done to truly reform the system, but the Biologic Patent Transparency Act is an example of rare bipartisan cooperation in Congress and a first step toward addressing the high cost of prescription drug prices for American patients.

Lawmakers intent on solving the problem of rising prescription drug prices in America should look to the example being set by Spanberger and Reed, and they must consider patent reform as an essential component of any legislative proposal.

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