Archive for the ‘Zocor’ Category
Friday, February 29th, 2008
The brand-name pharmaceutical industry constantly pushes the myth that its expensive blockbusters are breakthrough treatments that greatly increase people’s health and well-being, and thus are worth the high price-tag. That myth has more holes than a slice of swiss cheese, yet they keep pushing it on the American public like it’s one of their drugs.
As Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and author of “The Truth About the Drug Companies” (see an interview with Dr. Angell in PAL’s newsletter here) famously said, “Important new drugs do not need much promotion. Me-too drugs do.” So drugs which offer little breakthrough in treatment need to be (over)hyped.
For years, the drug industry has touted antidepressants (particularly SSRIs - Selective Serontin Reuptake Inhibitors — Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, etc. as one of its major successes. Yet, this week, a major meta-analysis (a study that reviews the full range of studies and articles on a particular drug) was published in the open-access medical journal PLoS (Public Library of Science) Medicine. That article concluded that, for the majority of patients, SSRI antidepressants are barely better than a placebo.
It’s likely that patients in the U.S. (and their health plans, and government health care programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Administration, the military health care plan Tri-Care, etc) have spent tens of billions of dollars on antidepressants in the past decade, despite the fact that for many of them, it was likely a waste of money, exposed them to the risk of side effects, and may have resulted in their not availing themselves of other non-pharmaceutical options for treating their depression.
The billions that the industry spent on marketing these drugs, both to consumers and to doctors, led millions to believe that relief was just a pill away (We gave the makers of Paxil, one of these antidepressants, one of our Bitter Pill Awards in 2005, the Cure for the Human Condition Award: For Hawking Pills to Treat the Trials of Everyday Life).
Drugs for depression are just one of numerous groups of drugs for which the benefits are overhyped and people for whom an expensive drug is unnecessary or overkill are convinced to take it in lieu of something cheaper, that’s been around longer and whose risks and benefits are more well known.
“Statin” drugs for reducing high cholesterol are another group of drugs that have been massively overhyped, and that also have been in the news a great deal lately. Last month, the results of a study of Schering-Plough and Merck’s combination-cholesterol drug Vytorin, the ENHANCE study, were released, showing that it offered no benefit over simvastatin (Zocor), a statin that last year went generic. Vytorin is a combination of Zocor and Zetia, which is also sold by itself. Vytorin and Zetia together have more than $5 billion in sales.
Statin drugs have also been in the news because of the revelation that Dr. Robert Jarvik, Pfizer’s boat-rowing pitchman for Lipitor, is not a licensed physician, cannot write a prescription for Lipitor or any drug for that matter, and is not even a rower (a stunt double was used in the Lipitor ads). We’ve blogged about Jarvik-gate here on several occasions, including proposing some other famous “doctors” who aren’t licensed physicians that Pharma ought consider using as paid flaks — including Dr. Teeth from the Muppets, Basketball legend Dr. J, Dr. Nick Riviera from the Simpsons, and New Orleans musical legend Dr. John).
Of course, the real Lipitor story is not Dr. Robert Jarvik and his rowing and prescribing credentials. At best, he’s a bit player in this drama. The real story is how incredibly overhyped Lipitor is. Pfizer boasts it’s the “most powerful” statin as though that means that everyone with high cholesterol should be on it. But for many (perhaps most) people with high cholesterol, using Lipitor is like using a chainsaw to cut paper instead of scissors: that is, unnecessary overkill. Members of the PAL coalition filed a lawsuit against Pfizer in 2005, alleging that Lipitor had been overhyped and promoted to patients for whom it offered no benefit, and we gave them and AstraZeneca, the makers of Crestor, a Bitter Pill Award in 2006: The “Got Cholesterol?” Award: For Overpromoting Expensive Brand-Name Statins.
But even that’s not the real story — there are larger questions about statins. For instance, does lowering your cholesterol translate into a lower risk of heart attack or heart deaths on January 17 was Do Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good? Research suggests that, except among high-risk heart patients, the benefits of statins such as Lipitor are overstated.
Here are a few choice excerpts:
[Statins] are the best-selling medicines in history, used by more than 13 million Americans and an additional 12 million patients around the world, producing $27.8 billion in sales in 2006. Half of that went to Pfizer for its leading statin…
The second crucial point is hiding in plain sight in Pfizer’s own Lipitor newspaper ad. The dramatic 36% figure has an asterisk. Read the smaller type. It says: “That means in a large clinical study, 3% of patients taking a sugar pill or placebo had a heart attack compared to 2% of patients taking Lipitor.”
Now do some simple math. The numbers in that sentence mean that for every 100 people in the trial, which lasted 3 1/3 years, three people on placebos and two people on Lipitor had heart attacks. The difference credited to the drug? One fewer heart attack per 100 people. So to spare one person a heart attack, 100 people had to take Lipitor for more than three years. The other 99 got no measurable benefit. Or to put it in terms of a little-known but useful statistic, the number needed to treat (or NNT) for one person to benefit is 100.
Compare that with, say, today’s standard antibiotic therapy to eradicate ulcer-causing H. pylori stomach bacteria. The NNT is 1.1. Give the drugs to 11 people, and 10 will be cured.
A low NNT is the sort of effective response many patients expect from the drugs they take. When Wright and others explain to patients without prior heart disease that only 1 in 100 is likely to benefit from taking statins for years, most are astonished. Many, like Winn, choose to opt out…
NNTs are the “dirty little secret” of the world of prescription drugs. And a perfect illustration of how hyping drugs through advertising to consumers and marketing to doctors (through the 100,000 salespeople employed by drug companies, self-serving biased clinical trials and corporate-influenced “continuing medical education”) doesn’t benefit patients. As the article says,
The truth about drugs’ effectiveness wouldn’t be as worrisome if consumers and doctors had an accurate picture of the state of knowledge and could make rational decisions about treatments. Studies by Darlington Hospital’s Trewby, UBC’s Wright, and others, however, show that patients expect far more than what the drugs actually deliver…
The whole statin story is a classic case of good drugs pushed too far, argues Dr. Howard Brody, professor of family medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The drug business is, after all, a business. Companies are supposed to boost sales and returns to shareholders. The problem they face, though, is that many drugs are most effective in relatively small subgroups of sufferers. With statins, these are the patients who already have heart disease. But that’s not a blockbuster market. So companies have every incentive to market their drugs as being essential for wider groups of people, for whom the benefits are, by definition, smaller.
Finally, an excellent piece posted today on Alternet examines the statin and cholesterol controversy in detail: The Cholesterol Con — Where Were the Doctors?
Friday, February 8th, 2008
In case anyone had lingering doubts about Merck [NYSE:MRK], the embattled maker of Vioxx is in the news again. This time for agreeing to pay a $671 million to federal and state prosecutors for allegedly overcharging government programs for four drugs — Zocor, Mevacor, Vioxx and Pepcid, and for bribing doctors to prescribe certain drugs. This is one of the largest health care fraud settlements to date.
An Associated Press article reports the details:
Drug companies must report to the government the lowest price for their medicines to ensure that Medicaid programs get the same discounts or rebates on drugs they buy. Prosecutors said Merck was hiding steep discounts – up to 92 percent off the average price – it gave hospitals that used a set amount of Merck products.
From 1997 to 2001, prosecutors said Merck had about 15 different programs used by its sales representatives to give doctors and other health professionals “illegal kickbacks,” disguised as fees for training or consultation, to induce them to prescribe Merck drugs.
The Philadelphia case involved pricing programs for the cholesterol drugs Zocor and Mevacor and the painkiller Vioxx, which Merck pulled from the market in September 2004 because Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke. Those programs ran from 1996 through 2006, Rogers said.
The Louisiana case involved pricing for heartburn drug Pepcid, from mid-1996 to April 2001, when it was sold only by prescription.
Merck, of course, denies it did anything wrong:
“What we have here is a disagreement (over) the rules of the Medicaid rebate program,” said Merck spokesman Ronald Rogers. “These civil settlements were the best and most appropriate way to resolve these lengthy investigations.”…
“At the time that these pricing programs were in place, Merck believes that it acted in good faith and complied with the regulations that were in place at the time,” Rogers said.
The settlement announced late yesterday concerns conduct that took place from 1997 to 2001. Thus, we’re talking about things that happened a very long time ago – 7-11 years ago, to be precise. Cases like this are brought under the False Claims Act, which allows “whistleblowers” (known as false claims or qui tam relators) who have information about companies that are defrauding the government to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the government to recover the amounts that were illegally charged. False Claims Act cases are “under seal” for several years while the Justice Department decides whether to “intervene,” that is, whether to enter — and largely take over — the case on behalf of the government. Then the investigation usually takes several more years, and negotiations with the defendants can take yet several more.
So, even when you have a situation like this, in which a drug company has to pay hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s only years after the conduct in question took place. It begs the question of how to make the process move more quickly, so that the fear of federal investigations and penalties can actually have a deterrent effect on drug companies’ behavior.
The Pennsylvania case whistleblower’s attorneys have set up their own website, describing the case and the settlement, drugfraudsettlement.com. Their press release describes what they say is a unique feature of this case:
Aside from the huge settlement, the second largest FCA civil fraud Medicaid recovery, the case marked new ground with a collaborative investigation model that saw the relator and his lawyers work closely with state and federal Government investigators to press the case. This new investigative model, [whistleblower lawyer] Cohen said, “will become the basis for future qui tam whistleblower investigations, especially in an age of shrinking government budgets.”
Merck reportedly will be bound by a Corporate Integrity Agreement as well, although no details of that agreement seem to be yet available. Corporate Integrity Agreements are frequently a feature of False Claims Act settlements, and usually require defendants to agree to set up “compliance programs” to train employees in how to comply with federal law and monitor that they are doing so.
Friday, October 19th, 2007
In the past several months, WCVB in Boston has run two reports on insurers giving financial incentives to doctors to switch patients off the expensive brand-name cholesterol drug Lipitor (made by Pfizer [NYSE:PFE] and on to a cheaper drug, either generic or brand-name. The most recent was earlier this week: “Doctors May Not Reveal Full Truth Behind Rx Switch.” The tone of the pieces has been one of shock and disbelief, that doctors are receiving some form of payment for making these switches. These reports tell about 1/5 of the real story.
The first key fact, mentioned in passing in the story, is that most patients that need a statin don’t need Lipitor – Lipitor is the “most powerful” statin available, but as one Doctor in the story says, “the vast majority of patients you can get to goal [i.e. get to the desired cholesterol level] with Simvastatin [a generic which used to go by the brand name Zocor] and if you can get them to goal for less money, less money to society, less money to them out of pocket, that’s what we should do.” And with drugs like statins, “more powerful” is not necessarily better — but it is more expensive. If patients’ cholesterol can be lowered to the needed level with a generic, then it should be.
But what about the “payments” to doctors? The story claims that insurers are paying doctors to switch their patients — the story is noticeably silent on the details of these payments:
Many doctors get a financial benefit from insurers through a complicated formula if they switch enough patients off of brand names to generics. Patients see that they are saving money on co-pays, but do they know their physicians are making money?
The choice of phrase “complicated formula” suggests that it’s not a straight payment — i.e. switch a patient, get a check. If it were such a one to one transaction, you can be sure that the story would have made strong emphasis of that fact. So, if, as it seems, the payment is more indirect — i.e. the number of patients that a doctor switches off of Lipitor is part of a larger reimbursement formula, then is there a problem with giving doctors an incentive, even a financial one?
Maybe, maybe not. But let’s put it in context. There are numerous “incentives” pushing doctors to prescribe particular drugs. Let’s look at those incentives and ask where they really stack up:
- 100,000 drug salespeople who work for drug companies like Pfizer (maker of Lipitor) descend on doctors’ offices every day, delivering slick sales pitches on why they should prescribe their patients the most expensive brand-name drugs instead of cheaper and equally effective generics.
- These same drug salespeople come bearing pens, prescription pads, and other gadgets emblazoned with the drug’s name and logo, along with drug samples, lunches for the entire staff, invitations to meals at fancy restaurants where there will be a presentation about the wonders of their drug, and of course a healthy dose of flattery.
- These sales reps enter the office with data purchased from local pharmacies, so they know exactly how many prescriptions the doctor is writing for their drug versus their competitors, and how that rate has changed since the last visit the salesperson made — allowing them to tailor their pitch to that doctor.
- When the doctor opens up the pages of medical journals, they see them plastered with ads for the drugs the salespeople are hawking.
- The doctor may then attend a Continuing Medical Education seminars (a certain number of which doctor must attend each year to keep their license to practice) where the speaker is a paid consultant of the company.
- Doctors who are high-prescribers of the drug or well-known in their region are designated as “thought leaders” and may be invited to be a consultant or part of a “speakers’ bureau” for the company, receiving a payment in return.
And so on, and so on.
As you can see, there are many “incentives” that drug companies give to doctors to get them to prescribe a certain drug over another. Some of them are financial — some are not. But they all influence the doctors’ choice of what drug to prescribe — and more often than not, it influences them to prescribe a newer, more expensive drug, regardless of whether that drug is more expensive or not. These tactics work, otherwise drug companies would not spend more than $20 Billion a year marketing to doctors.
And let’s not forget that drug companies have enlisted us, the consumer, as an unpaid member of their sales force. The pharmaceutical industry spent around $5 Billion on “direct to consumer” drug ads in 2006. Lipitor, the best selling drug in the U.S. and the world, spent $138.2 Million on Lipitor ads in 2006 (see our post, “Top 3 Bestselling Drugs spent $460.5 Million on Ads in 2006″), most of them featuring Dr. Robert Jarvik, inventor of the artificial heart, waxing ecstatic about Lipitor. After the sales rep has visited, and the doctor has seen the ads in the medical journal, and attended the dinner at the fancy restaurant, and gone to the seminar where a colleague who’s on the drug company’s payroll has preached the wonders of the drug, into the office comes the consumer, who says they saw an ad for Lipitor on TV, and that’s the drug they want.
So into this tangled web of pharmaceutical company influence and incentives comes the insurance company, also offering an incentive. Does this make the insurance company’s incentive right? Not necessarily. But to focus only on the insurance company in this equation, to express shock and horror at their incentive while ignoring the morass of promotion and persuasion used by the drug company, is to entirely ignore the full picture and the real story.
But reporting on that whole picture doesn’t make for a nice, neat, 3 minute “news” piece, does it? And what impression does a story like this leave in viewers’ minds? A PAL staffer did a presentation yesterday at a Senior housing complex, two days after the story aired, and the attendees overwhelmingly said that they had seen the report, and that they were led to believe from it that generics are not as effective – a message that was strongly implied by the story but which is a significant distortion of the truth.
(Postscript: If you’re curious about what statins are appropriate for which people, check out Consumer Reports’ Best Buy Drugs report on them)