Big Pharma's Sneaky Tactic: the "Forced Switch"
“If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”
Remember those words? Nearly six years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, they live on in infamy. They were the ultimate Big Lie, and they’re exactly what came to mind as I read about the most recent prescription drug outrage. This time Big Pharma has taken a page from Big Insurance’s playbook, and the issue is set to go all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s called a “forced switch.”
Big Pharma wants a monopoly on your wallet
When it comes to an industry that fakes data and fights to keep lethal drugs on the market, nothing should surprise us. And yet, the idea of the “forced switch” seems unbelievable. Here’s what happens:
New drugs are granted a patent. This means that the only one who can manufacture and market the drug is the company that created it. Patents are granted for a certain number of years, after which they expire. Once the patent expires, anyone can manufacture and market a generic version.
This is understandable. It’s intended to give drug companies time to earn back the money they spent on research and development. It’s meant to give them an incentive to keep doing research and discovering new drugs. However, once generics hit the market, the original manufacturer usually watches their profit plummet. Generics are usually 70% to 80% cheaper than the original brand name drug, and Medicare even requires pharmacies to substitute generics when they’re available in the same dosage as the brand name.
Big Pharma—it’s even sneakier than you thought
Big Pharma, of course, hates to lose this profit. Generics take a huge bite out of their bottom line and over the years they’ve tried all kinds of sneaky tactics to keep them off the market.
Once the original patent expires, manufacturers can change the dosage or how often you take a drug, then patent this “new” version. They’ve sometimes patented the same drug for two separate uses with two separate patents. They run blitz ad campaigns promoting the brand name. They offer “rewards” cards to keep you buying. They’ve even bought out the (generic) competition more than once.
But the sneakiest, most outrageous tactic they use is something the industry calls the “hard switch.” In a hard switch, the manufacturer tweaks the formula of a drug that’s about to go off-patent. Maybe they change the dosage so that you take it twice a day instead of three times, or once rather than twice. The change is usually tiny.
They then patent the “new” version of the drug and start aggressively marketing it to doctors and to consumers. Then—and here’s the really sneaky part—before the patent on the original drug expires, they stop selling it. This forces people taking it to switch to the new version or do without, before it’s legal to manufacture a generic version. By the time the patent expires, most people have switched to the “new” drug already. And surprisingly, most folks will never switch to the generic, even though it’s cheaper.
It’s unethical. But is it illegal?
The New York Attorney General thought so. A handful of years ago Big Pharma player Actavis (now Allergan) decided to pull its Alzheimer’s drug, Namenda, from the market. The patent was about to expire, and Actavis didn’t want competition from generics. So it created a “new” version of the drug, called Namenda IR. The only difference? You take Namenda twice per day. You take Namenda IR once.
And somehow, as far as the law and the FDA are concerned, that makes it...a whole new drug? With a whole new patent?
This minute difference is actually patentable?
That’s downright unbelievable. But it happens. And it happens often.
Once Namenda IR was available, Actavis pulled the original off the market, forcing patients to take the new drug or do without. The New York Attorney General said this creates a monopoly—and a lower court agreed. Actavis was ordered to keep manufacturing Namenda for 60 days. Faced with losing millions of dollars in potential sales, the company appealed and the case was expected to go be heard by the Supreme Court sometime in 2016.
Not surprisingly, that never happened. The players involved finally reached a “settlement”...which didn’t settle anything except a few million dollars in a few pocket. For all practical purposes, it left the whole question wide open. There are currently several similar cases moving through the courts, so all we can do is hope that eventually the Supreme Court does weigh in and stop this underhanded practice.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
What does this mean for you?
It means that once again your health—and your wallet—is a pawn in Big Pharma’s game. Until and unless the Supreme Court rules that your health is more important than Big Pharma’s profits, you’re on your own.
What can you do?
Refuse to play the game. If you’re being forced to switch from one version of a drug to a “new and improved” version, do your homework. Ask questions. Read up. Find out these things:
• Is the new version really better?
• Is it going to cost you more? If so, do the benefits outweigh the cost?
• Are you being pushed to switch because a generic is about to hit the market?
• Are there other alternatives?
The fact is, there are very few drugs on the market that don’t have one or more alternatives. And a surprising amount of the time, an older (and often cheaper) medication does just as good a job as a newer, pricier one. Look into natural alternatives, too. And last of all ask yourself—and your doctor —if you really need to be taking this drug, or it’s been prescribed just because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” You might be surprised at the answer.
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