Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

Consumer Groups Raise Rebate Wall Concerns With Regards to AbbVie/Allergan Merger

On February 18, 2020, a group of unions, consumer groups, and public interest organizations filed a letter with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) raising concerns that the divestiture of Allergan plc’s (“Allergan”) pipeline drug, brazikumab, will not succeed unless the FTC addresses AbbVie’s use of rebate walls.

Consumer Group Concerns Regarding Rebate Walls and the Proposed Divestiture

The letter expresses concerns that the proposed divestiture to AstraZeneca of Allergan’s brazikumab, a drug in development, is inadequate to address the clear anticompetitive effects of the AbbVie/Allergan merger.  The letter makes the following points:

First, the divestiture of Allergan’s IL-23 inhibitor, brazikumab, a drug in the pipeline, to AstraZeneca is unlikely to fully restore competition.  The divestiture is being proposed to resolve the horizontal overlap between AbbVie’s IL-23 inhibitor, Skyrizi, and Allergan’s brazikumab for potential biologic treatments for Crohns diseas and ulcer colitis.  The group argues that the divestiture raises a number of serious concerns because it goes against the Commission’s policy of requiring divestitures of on market drugs instead of pipeline drugs.  Indeed, the FTC has required divestitures of on market drugs in Bristol Meyers/Celgene and Amneal/Impax because the Commission generally believes that consumers should not bear the risk that a divestiture may fail.

Second, the consumer groups contend that AstraZeneca is a questionable buyer for brazikumab.  AstraZeneca is not committed to the assets because it gave up on them just three years ago and according to the parties’ press releases announcing the deal, won’t be investing in the development costs to obtain FDA approval.  In fact, Allergan is expected to pay for the development costs.  Without having a significant financial stake in the development of brazikumab, it becomes less likely that AstraZeneca will ever launch the products and compete with AbbVie’s Skyrizi in the markets for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Third, for any divestiture to be effective, it is crucial to impose restrictions on AbbVie’s use of rebate walls (contracts that foreclose rival drugs from getting on drug formularies) that could inhibit any buyer of the pipeline assets from being an effective competitor in the future.  AbbVie’s use of rebate walls creates substantial barriers to AstraZeneca’s commercial success in bringing brazikumab to the market and the success of competing products in these therapeutic categories. AbbVie has and is currently engaged in restrictive contracting practices that have enabled the creation of so called “rebate walls” to protect its blockbuster drugs, Humira and Skyrizi, that not only lead to higher prescription drug prices, but foreclose rival drugs from obtaining access to payors’ formularies, resulting in reduced consumer choice.

Rebate Walls Raise Serious Antitrust Concerns

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 By Nine Senators in the FTC’s Investigation of Bristol-Myers/Celgene and AbbVie/Allergan

On September 19, 2019, nine senators (Klobuchar, Booker, Baldwin, Smith, Hirono, Sanders, Harris, and Warren) wrote a letter to the FTC expressing their concerns that “[p]ost-merger, the combined firm would have greater ability to condition buyers’ access to these multi-billion dollar drugs on purchases of less popular drugs in their portfolios. They could also use their increased leverage to secure favorable positions on buyers’ drug formularies by offering volume-based rebates that competitors with rival products cannot match; these “rebate traps” or “rebate walls” can have the effect of preventing alternative drugs, including more affordable biosimilars and generics, from competing.”

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 trap”.  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.  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.  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 the rebate wall may undermine the proposed divestiture.  Competition works when new rival drugs  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 rebate walls, the issue is now in front of the staff.