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How PE Firms Are Flipping Drugs in Price-Gouging Scheme that Cannibalizes the Entire US Economy
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Published: 4 years ago

How PE Firms Are Flipping Drugs in Price-Gouging Scheme that Cannibalizes the Entire US Economy

Wolf Street



The ravenous price increases that pharmaceutical companies slap on their medicines are part of the reason the US health care system is eating an ever larger slice of consumer, corporate, and government spending, and why the rest of the economy has trouble moving forward. Some of the price increases have turned into scandals with plenty of mouth-wagging by politicians.

Mylan got raked over the coals in Congress for raising the price of its autoinjector EpiPen seven-fold since buying it in 2007. Last year, Turing Pharmaceuticals, under Martin Shkreli, got into hot water over raising the price of just-acquired Daraprim 50-fold.

Private equity firms have figured this out. You can make a ton of money with a basic formula: Fund a newly created outfit that buys the rights to a prescription drug with little or no competition and with stagnant or declining sales, jack up the price of the drug, then flip the company at an enormous profit.

This has become the latest way of wringing out the American economy without contributing anything to it, and at the expense of everyone else. So Bloomberg dug into the role private equity firms play in these schemes.

For example, Genentech developed immune-disorder drug Actimmune decades ago. Eventually, sales began sagging. In 2012, it sold the rights to Vidara Therapeutics for $55 million. Vidara had been formed for this purpose and was funded by private equity firm DFW Capital Partners.

Over the next two years, they jacked up the price of Actimmune by 434%, thus making it a very profitable drug despite declining sales. In September 2014, they flipped Vidara to Horizon Pharma for $660 million, pocketing a huge low-risk gain in just 27 months.

Then Horizon jacked up the list price another 81% to $538,000 for a year’s worth of treatment. Since 2012, the list price has soared 866%!

At that time, Vidara’s co-founder and majority shareholder, Balaji Venkataraman, was involved in another highly profitable pharma flip, according to Bloomberg. He helped start up and fund Sebela Pharmaceuticals in 2013. In August 2014, Sebela bought Miacalcin, which treats high calcium levels, from Novartis. Over the next eight months, the price was jacked up from $68 a vial to $1,987 a vial.

Then the highly profitable exit. Bloomberg: “About a year later, Sebela sold Miacalcin ‘for a substantial gain,’ resulting in a special distribution to shareholders, according to an annual report from one of DFW’s investors.”

The buyer? Mylan of EpiPen fame. Which has since jacked up the price to $2,283 a vial. This brings the total price increase since August 2014 to 3,257%!

But it’s not just old drugs that get flipped. New drugs can get the same treatment, so to speak. Savient Pharmaceuticals developed Krystexxa for chronic gout. It started marketing it 2011. But things didn’t work out. In October 2013, Savient filed for bankruptcy. In January 2014, Crealta Pharmaceuticals, which had no drugs but was backed by PE firm GTCR, acquired the assets of Savient for $120 million. It then jacked up the price of Krystexxa by $8,610 per vial, pushing it from $5,390 per vial to $14,000.

In January 2016, Crealta, with Krystexxa as the main asset, was sold to Horizon – the same company that had bought Vidara – for $510 million. Horizon continued the scheme, raising the price of Krystexxa to $16,909 per vial. Since January 2014, the price has soared by $11,519 per vial.

Covis, based in Switzerland and majority owned by PE firm Cerberus Capital, acquired 14 licensing rights for $345 million over three years, from Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline, and others. According to Bloomberg, Covis jacked up prices on six of them by over 200%. In April last year, it sold 12 of the brands and some generics to Concordia for $1.2 billion. And… “Price rises continued.”

Two of these drugs, Nilandron and Dutoprol, are up 989% and 1,057%, respectively, since 2013.

They’re among dozens of drugs bought with private financing in the past six years, according to an analysis of products in a database kept by the software company Connecture Inc. The price often rises, and the drug’s often resold.

There are other examples: The price of the old Novartis cold-sore cream Denavir was jacked up 372% “as it changed hands twice with private equity help,” according to Bloomberg. The price of Dutoprol soared 1,057% after a flip.

Between 2011 and 2015, about 650 branded prescription drugs have doubled in price, according to data from Connecture, cited by Bloomberg. And for about 100 of these drugs, prices were jacked up by over 500%.

Insurance companies and pharmacy-benefit managers, which have been focusing on top sellers to contain costs, are now starting to home in on flipped drugs that had been flying under the radar. For example, benefits manager CVS Health said in August that due to these “hyperinflationary” price increases, it would stop covering Nilandron and Dutoprol.

Senator Bernie Sanders has lambasted the greed of this industry repeatedly. Over the past couple of days, he added some stinging tweets:

9 of 10 Americans blame the pharmaceutical industry for the high cost of health care. It’s time to end their greed and lower drug prices.

The business model of the drug industry is fraud. Glaxo put patients at risk to increase their profits

It makes no sense that the same drug that costs $70 in France costs $450 in the US. We should reduce barriers to importation of drugs.

Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk clearly care more about their profits than their patients. It’s time to end their greed.

What you have is an incredibly powerful and greedy industry charging whatever price they want.

Companies will do whatever they can to build, use, and abuse monopolies, dysfunctional markets, patent laws, and other government protections in order to maximize profits while cannibalizing the entire economy.

They don’t care. And they’re not required to care.

The fault lies with Congress and regulators that have been “captured” by the industry. They’ve allowed and encouraged this form of price gouging. They’ve recklessly and willfully shuffled off the responsibility of keeping prices under control to market forces and competition, knowing perfectly well that there are no market forces and competition for many drugs, and nothing else to keep prices in check.

The dog-and-pony shows during the periodic congressional hearings with all their professionally faked outrage are simply brushed aside by these one-drug outfits, the PE firms behind them, and Big Pharma, all of them in search of maximum profit in the shortest amount of time, at the lowest risk, and at the expense of everyone else.

Health insurers just can’t stand competition. Read…  Are Big Health Insurers Screwing with Consumers and Businesses?


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