The doctor was dumbfounded: a drug that used to cost $50 was now selling for $28,000 for a 5-milliliter vial.
The physician, Dr. Ladislas Lazaro IV, remembered occasionally prescribing this anti-inflammatory, named H.P. Acthar Gel, for gout back in the early 1990s. Then the drug seemed to fade from view. Dr. Lazaro had all but forgotten about it, until a sales representative from a company called Questcor Pharmaceuticals appeared at his office and suggested that he try it for various rheumatologic conditions.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dr. Lazaro, a rheumatologist in Lafayette, La., says of the price increase.
How the price of this drug rose so far, so fast is a story for these troubled times in American health care — a tale of aggressive marketing, questionable medicine and, not least, out-of-control costs. At the center of it is Questcor, which turned the once-obscure Acthar into a hugely profitable wonder drug and itself into one of Wall Street’s highest fliers.
That Acthar is even a potential blockbuster is a remarkable turn of events, considering that the drug was developed in the 1950s by a division of Armour & Company, the meatpacking company that once ruled the Union Stock Yards of Chicago. As in the 1950s, Acthar is still extracted from the pituitary glands of slaughtered pigs — essentially a byproduct of the meatpacking industry.
The most important use of Acthar has been to treat infantile spasms, also known as West syndrome, a rare, sometimes fatal epileptic disorder that generally strikes before the age of 1.
For several years, Questcor, which is based in Anaheim, lost money on Acthar because the drug’s market was so small. In 2007, it raised the price overnight, to more than $23,000 a vial, from $1,650, bringing the cost of a typical course of treatment for infantile spasms to above $100,000. It said it needed the high price to keep the drug on the market…
But Questcor did almost no research or development to bring Acthar to market, merely buying the rights to the drug from its previous owner for $100,000 in 2001. And while the manufacturing of Acthar is complex, it accounts for only about 1 cent of every dollar that Questcor charges for the drug.
…Before long, Questcor began marketing the drug for multiple sclerosis, nephrotic syndrome and rheumatologic conditions, even though there is little evidence that Acthar is more effective for those other conditions than alternatives that are far cheaper. And the company did so without being required to prove that the drug actually works. That is because Acthar was approved for use in 1952, before the Food and Drug Administration required clinical trials to show a drug is effective for a particular disease. Acthar is essentially grandfathered in.
It never ends does it? RTFA for the rest of this delightful twisted tale. Shareholders and profits take a higher priority than medical usefulness. The FDA does nothing because of old precedents – and Congress does nothing to change those rules.
Beancounters complain about the cost of healthcare without considering those who profit the most from absurd pricing, their greed, their responsibility.