Howard Dean and Biologics

Monday’s New York Times op-ed page features a piece by two experts at Duke University’s “Program on Global Health and Technology Access” arguing against 12-year patent protection for ultraexpensive “biologic” drugs. Some highlights:

EVERYONE knows that an easy way to save money on medicines is to buy generics rather than brand-name drugs. Makers of generics estimate that over the past decade they have saved the American health care system about $734 billion. Yet, we continue to spend more on drugs — in part because of the increasing use of so-called biologic medicines, which cost, on average, 22 times as much as ordinary drugs. In 2008, 28 percent of sales from the pharmaceutical industry’s top 100 products came from biologics; by 2014, that share is expected to rise to 50 percent….

The proposals before Congress would protect biologic medicines for 12 years after their approval by the Food and Drug Administration — that would be seven more years of market exclusivity than conventional drugs have…..

[Just six biologics] consume 43 percent of the drug budget for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor visits and outpatient services.

There’s not much reason—other than gobs of lobbyist cash—to extend biologics protection for seven years beyond what is offered to conventional drugs. (Actually, the drug industry is hoping that 12-year biologics protection will help it push for 14-year conventional protection—really.) But as Time‘s Michael Scherer and Karen Tumulty reported in October, two progressive heroes seem to be on the wrong side of this debate:

Among the biologics industry’s most high-profile advocates has been former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who is consulting for a law firm that has a deep roster of biologics clients. In July he wrote an Op-Ed in the Hill newspaper arguing for a “commonsense and fair approach” to give biologics companies at least 12 years of exclusivity. (“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t believe it,” Dean, a physician, said in an interview.) His former campaign manager Joe Trippi echoed Dean’s views on a Huffington Post blog without disclosing that he had been paid by BIO to create two Web campaigns. (He also says his views predated his paycheck.)

It’s worth keeping all this in mind when Dean warns that passing health care reform would hurt Democrats.