To rein in Big Pharma over high drug prices, start with patent reform

Bipartisan proposals represent a rare bright spot in a divided Congress

Abuse of the patent system by brand-name drug manufacturers is exacerbating the financial burden faced by American patients for their prescription drugs, Lane writes. (George Frey/Getty Images file photo)
Abuse of the patent system by brand-name drug manufacturers is exacerbating the financial burden faced by American patients for their prescription drugs, Lane writes. (George Frey/Getty Images file photo)
Posted January 17, 2020 at 6:00am

OPINION — With the Senate impeachment trial kicking off and partisan tensions running high on several fronts, Americans might be forgiven for thinking that Congress has lost the ability to find common ground. But lately, and despite the proverbial odds, there is a new bipartisan consensus forming on an issue of incredible importance to millions of Americans: prescription drug pricing. Specifically, reforming the U.S. patent system to end abusive practices that are directly contributing to high drug prices.

Across the country, Americans are struggling under the weight of skyrocketing prescription drug costs. It is no secret that affording medicines and treatments is an incredible burden for too many families. On average, Americans are paying considerably more than citizens of other high-income countries for the same exact prescription drugs.

Worse, major pharmaceutical companies have kicked off the new year by raising the prices of over 440 drugs, with an average increase of 5 percent. This kind of behavior exacerbates the financial burden faced by American patients and only serves to pad Big Pharma’s already soaring profits.

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A significant reason for the skyrocketing price of prescription drugs is that major pharmaceutical companies have enjoyed an effective open season on raising drug prices. Armed with government-sponsored monopolies obtained through shameless abuse of the patent system, Big Pharma has been free to raise prices at their leisure.

The goal of brand-name drugmakers’ abuse of the patent system is to get more than their fair share by getting new patent monopolies on old drugs. Patents are supposed to be a reward for new innovations, not clever lawyering at the patent office.

Many important older drugs should be facing generic competition, an important and intended step in the life cycle of a drug that reduces prices by about 80 percent on average from their monopoly level. But patent gamesmanship has increased the average monopoly period of a drug by over two years, costing Americans tens of billions of dollars.

In order for patients to have access to more affordable generics and biosimilars, patent reform must be a priority in any policy aiming to prevent the prescription drug pricing crisis from getting any worse.

The good news is that more and more members of Congress are recognizing this problem. In recent months, members of both parties have come together to propose innovative solutions that are essential first steps in the right direction. These proposals won’t solve the whole problem but represent real progress as Congress debates bigger solutions to our drug pricing crisis.

In the Senate, Texas Republican John Cornyn and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal introduced the Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Act. In the House, Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, Georgia Republican Doug Collins and Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner introduced the Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Through Promoting Competition Act of 2019. Both bills would help to rein in Big Pharma and provide additional tools to prevent some of their worst tactics like product hopping. Together, these two pieces of legislation represent not only clear steps toward solving this critical issue but also a recognition from members of both parties that patent abuse is a major factor in rising prescription drug costs.

Finding common ground isn’t easy in today’s divided Washington. We are even seeing it in the broader drug pricing debate with competing proposals in the House and Senate. But it is encouraging to see bipartisan consensus emerging on patent reform.

If Congress is serious about making prescription drugs more affordable, then reforming the patent system, ending product hopping and finally putting an end to Big Pharma’s abuses are a must for 2020. American patients cannot afford to wait any longer.

Matthew Lane is the executive director of the Coalition Against Patent Abuse, a collection of health care providers, consumer groups and other advocates that fights abuses of the drug patent system.