Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

Coalition of Unions and Consumer Groups Oppose AbbVie/Allergan Merger Based on Use of Rebate Walls

On September 12, 2019, a coalition of unions, consumer groups, and public interest organizations filed a letter with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) opposing AbbVie Inc.’s (“AbbVie”) acquisition of Allergan plc (“Allergan”).

Coalition Opposing the Merger

The coalition includes Families USA, Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, UNITE HERE, Consumer Action, American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Retired Americans, American Family Voices, Doctors for America, End AIDS Now, Prescription Justice, Social Security Works, the Other 98, Treatment Action Group, and NextGen California.  It is asking the FTC to conduct a thorough investigation and to block the merger if the facts support it and a remedy cannot be devised to restore competition.  The coalition highlights the competitive problems arising from continued consolidation in the pharmaceutical industry and requests that the FTC include in its investigation ongoing anticompetitive conduct by the parties, such as the use of rebate walls, which will have an even more profound anticompetitive effect if this merger is consolidated, as well as past abuse of the patent system.

The letter makes three points.

First, the merger of AbbVie and Allergan will continue a tremendous trend of consolidation and the evidence shows that consumers are paying higher prices and losing out on access and choice because of less innovation by big pharma companies.  Mergers result in fewer choices for consumers, and drug companies are increasingly spending their money on acquisitions instead of research and development.

Second, the merger will reduce competition in a number of markets where the companies directly overlap with each other.  The coalition underlines an overlap between AbbVie’s blockbuster, Humira, which already treats 10 indications including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and its new IL-23 blockbuster, Skyrizi, which is currently marketed to treat moderate to severe psoriasis but is being investigated to treat Chron’s disease and ulcerative colitis, with Allergan’s brazikumab, an IL-23 inhibitor that is currently being investigated to treat Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.  The coalition further points out that the FTC’s policy is to accept divestitures of actually manufactured pharmaceutical products over pipeline products.

Third, the merger will exacerbate competitive problems that already exist in the pharmaceutical drug industry relating to rebate walls and patent abuses.  The coalition requests that the FTC not limit its investigation to direct product overlaps because the combination of AbbVie’s and Allergan’s blockbuster drugs will enable AbbVie to engage in a whole range of potentially anticompetitive conduct to hamper the ability of rivals to compete.  Indeed, both manufacturers have previously engaged in anticompetitive behavior to prolong their monopolies, suppress competition and raise prices.  The coalition points out, for example, that the merger would enable AbbVie to increase its bargaining leverage over payors to use exclusionary practices such as rebate walls to limit the ability of rivals to expand and enter.  It underscores that both AbbVie and Allergan have used rebate walls to stifle competition in the past.

Families USA, one of the groups that signed onto the letter, said, “The proposed acquisition of Allergen by AbbVie will combine two companies that independently engage in anticompetitive practices that make prescription drugs unaffordable for families into one mega corporation.  We urge the FTC to carefully consider the impact of this proposed drug company merger on competition and prices and protect access to critical medicines for consumers.”  And Peter Maybarduk, Access to Medicines Director for Public Citizen, said, “Two leading price gouging patent manipulators unite.  AbbVie is notorious for manipulating its patent power over the blockbuster medication Humira and AIDS drugs like ritonavir, keeping affordable generics off the market and even slowing innovation.  Allergan is notorious for hiding its patents behind the sovereign immunity of a Mohawk tribe.  Unless the FTC steps in, we can look forward to new efforts to destroy competitive markets by the pharma giant that emerges from this deal, in an industry increasingly focused on monopolizing yesterday’s inventions instead of creating new ones.”

Rebate Walls

Pharmaceutical manufacturers have implemented a new strategy to block and delay entry of biosimilars and other drugs from the market through a contracting practice that creates what is known as a “rebate wall” or “rebate trap”.   A rebate wall occurs when a manufacturer leverages its market-dominant position to secure preferred formulary access for its products by offering lucrative incentives to pharmacy benefit managers (“PBMs”) and health insurers in the form of volume-based rebates.  These rebates are often offered across multiple products, indications, and therapeutic specialties, the breadth of which cannot be matched by new and innovative therapies.  The Trump Administration earlier this year sought to eliminate rebates from the Medicare prescription drug program because pharmaceutical rebates raise more profound competitive problems than discounts in other industries.  In fact, the coalition notes that there is increasing evidence that rebates actually inflate prices (as opposed to decreasing them) and that these rebates, unlike typical discounts, do not ultimately benefit consumers.

FTC is Currently Investigating Rebate Walls

On July 29, 2019, Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) disclosed that the FTC issued a civil investigative demand regarding its investigation of whether J&J’s contracting practices related to its rebates for Remicade (infliximab) amount to exclusionary conduct illegal under the antitrust laws.

In 2017, Pfizer Inc. (“Pfizer”) filed a lawsuit against J&J for its contracting practices that protect Remicade’s position in the market and deny patients access to Pfizer’s infliximab biosimilar, Inflectra.  The lawsuit is still in the discovery phase.

Biosimilar developers have been urging the FTC to weigh in on whether exclusionary contracts for brands based on aggressive rebating strategies are legal and the agency has chosen a high-profile example to investigate.

Pfizer applauded the FTC’s investigation in a statement: “We believe the [FTC’s] decision to open an investigation into the competitiveness of the biosimilar is an important step, which we hope will lead to a robust, competitive marketplace for patients and physicians to access biosimilar medicines.”

Rebate Wall Concerns Were Raised in the FTC’s Investigation of Bristol-Myers/Celgene

On January 11, 2019, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) wrote a letter to the FTC, urging the agency to investigate Bristol-Myers Squibb Company’s (“Bristol-Myers”) acquisition of Celgene Corporation (“Celgene”).  The letter asked the FTC to examine how the acquisition allows Bristol-Myers to increase its drug portfolio and leverage over PBMs when negotiating preferred drug placement on formularies.  The letter argued that the larger the firm, the more it can use rebate walls to block more affordable and, in some cases, more efficacious products’ access to formularies.

Thoughts

The AbbVie/Allergan merger gives the FTC an opportunity to investigate the questionable contracting practice in the pharmaceutical drug industry known as a “rebate wall”.  Payors such as PBMs and health insurers obtain rebates on prescription drugs from pharmaceutical manufacturers that have actually inflated the price of drugs and stifled the ability of rival drug manufacturers to effectively compete.  This practice is recognized by both the administration and industry players as anticompetitive.  Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has noted that rebate walls can prevent competition and new entrants into the system.  Moreover, major drug manufacturers such as Pfizer, Shire, and Sanofi have filed antitrust suits challenging rebate walls as antitrust violations.  In theory, rebates could have a positive impact on the prescription drug market if they led to lower prices and benefitted consumers.  But, in practice, this is simply not the case.  Rebate walls distort the workings of the free market, result in higher drug prices, and reduce patients’ access to affordable branded drugs.

While rebates and discounts can be procompetitive if they lead to lower prices for consumers, some drug manufacturers are structuring discounts to limit competition from rivals in an effort to protect their monopolies.  The FTC understands that when a rebate wall is successfully erected by a market-dominant manufacturer, a payor faces strong financial disincentives to grant access to new and innovative therapies, as doing so would result in the loss of hundreds of millions in guaranteed rebate dollars for the payor.  This condition creates a “trap” for payers who would otherwise be inclined to grant formulary access to therapies that are newer and more innovative, yet lack established volume and subsequent potential for rebate revenue.  In many cases, these actions prevent patients and physicians from seriously considering new medications at competitive prices.

Given the competitive risks that rebate walls pose, the coalition has asked the FTC to investigate how this transaction may make the situation related to this suspect contracting practice worse.  Competition works when new rival drugs (biosimilars, branded drugs or generics) are allowed open and fair access to the market and consumers have access to cost saving treatments.  And while the FTC has not publicly acknowledged examining mergers between drug manufacturers under this type of theory before, the issue is now in front of the staff.