Call it Bernie Sanders vs. Ariad Pharmaceuticals, Act Two.
The Vermont senator and erstwhile presidential candidate, who has helped make prescription drug pricing a high-profile issue, sent the company a letter on Thursday asking for a plethora of data that might explain a string of “staggering” and “outrageous” price hikes for an expensive cancer treatment.
The move comes six days after Sanders tweeted about the price hikes, which sent Ariad stock plummeting and wiped out $387 million in its market capitalization in one day. The tweet was only the latest in a growing list of attacks on the cost of medicines that has rattled the pharmaceutical industry, as a growing number of federal and state lawmakers look for ways to contain costs.
Ariad, however, gained notice after several price hikes for its Iclusig chronic myeloid leukemia drug. Since the beginning of the year, the company has raised the price four times for a cumulative increase of 27 percent. The medication now has a list price of $16,560 a month, or almost $199,000 a year, before any rebates or discounts. And Ariad also raised the price twice last year.
There was more. The company also took steps to goose profits by restricting patient choices.
As we reported previously, Ariad effectively doubled the price of its 15 mg tablet. Until September 2014, a two-month supply, which was 60 tablets, carried a list price of $10,350, but Ariad discontinued sales of this quantity. Instead, the company began charging the same price for 30 tablets of the 15 mg dose. Ariad also reportedly discontinued sales of its 30 mg tablet.
“In the interest of patients and taxpayers, we are interested in learning more about the impact that the escalating price and restrictions on product availability have had,” Sanders and US Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote in their Oct. 20 letter to Ariad Chief Executive Paris Panayiotopoulos. Sanders and Cummings have previously teamed on investigations into drug pricing, notably sudden increases in some generic drugs.
The lawmakers asked Ariad to fork over data about Iclusig revenue and profits; purchasers and prices paid for the drug; Iclusig expenses such as R&D, marketing and manufacturing; information about patient assistance programs and coupons; foreign pricing; an explanation about why some doses were discontinued; and the names of executives who set the prices.
The price hikes began a year after a labeling change that restricted usage to a smaller patient population. In December 2012, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Iclusig for patients who did not respond to other treatments. But reports of life-threatening blood clots prompted the agency to ask Ariad to suspend sales. Two months later, the FDA allowed sales to resume, but limited it to only certain patients with a genetic mutation that made them resistant to other drugs.
A spokesman for Ariad sent us this: “We recognize oncology drugs are expensive, but we believe in the importance and efficacy of our products. Importantly, to achieve its mission, Ariad has invested more than $1.3 billion in R&D and accumulated losses of approximately $1.4 billion since the company was founded, which have not been recovered.
“In 2015, Ariad generated $119 million in total revenue and invested $171 million, or 143 percent of revenue, in R&D. Iclusig is the first drug that we have brought to market after years of risk taking and research, and it serves a very small and seriously ill group of cancer patients. We have received a letter from Rep. Cummings and Sen. Sanders requesting information and we plan to respond to their request.”
This post was updated to include a comment from Ariad.