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Trading  | July 17, 2018

While Pfizer and several drugmakers have loudly touted their decision to roll back some price hikes on popular drugs following pressure from President Trump and the rollout of a new California law designed to discourage drug companies from raising prices, others have continued hiking prices of thousands of drugs. According to Raymond James & Associates drug companies have raised prices 3,653 times on 1,045 different drugs so far this year (drug companies often do one round of price hikes in January and another in the early summer). And according to the Wall Street Journal, the biggest price increases have been reserved for so-called “Cadillac” drugs like a new spray form of the sleeping medication Ambien.


Some of the price hikes impacted life-saving drugs like Ampyra, which is used to treat multiple sclerosis. Its owner, Acorda, hiked its price by 20% this year.


As for the sleep medication mentioned above, a small Colorado-based company called Aytu Bioscience recently raised the price of the spray formulation sold under the brand name Zolpimist by more than 800%, according to WSJ. 

The median price increase is 8%, but some specific increases have been far greater. Aytu BioScience Inc. raised the list price of a 7.7 milliliter bottle of its sleep aid Zolpimist to $659 from $69.88, while increasing the price of a 4.5 milliliter bottle by 747% to $329.50, according to RELX PLC’s Elsevier Gold Standard Drug Database. The drug is a spray version of zolpidem, the key ingredient in Ambien, which is widely available as cheap generic pills.

In a tactic reminiscent of Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Martin Shkreli’s Turing Pharmaceuticals, Aytu bought the rights to sell Zolpimist in the US from a Canadian firm called Magna Pharmaceuticals, then jacked up the price.

Aytu, of Englewood, Colo., raised the price of Zolpimist on Tuesday, about a month after buying the rights to sell the drug in the U.S. and Canada from Magna Pharmaceuticals Inc. The practice of buying rights and then raising the price, by companies including Valeant Pharmaceuticals under then-CEO Michael Pearson and Martin Shkreli’s Turing Pharmaceuticals AG, has drawn criticism from public officials and others because the companies didn’t invest in developing the drugs.

Asked by the paper for his company’s reason for hiking the price of the drug, Aytu CEO Josh Disbrow said the company was just bringing the price of Zolpimist in line with other comparable drugs. He added that people who can’t afford the spray version can buy the generic pill form instead. The drug, he said, was designed for the small number of wealthy patients who prefer the oral spray over lower priced pills.

Chief Executive Josh Disbrow said Aytu raised Zolpimist’s list price to bring it in line with the cost of other brand-name sleep drugs. He said Zolpimist was for the small number of patients willing to pay more, often out of their own pockets, for the oral spray than for lower-priced pills.

“For those people who want a Cadillac, they can pay for it,” Mr. Disbrow said in an interview.

Aytu’s increase in the list price of Zolpimist was among the biggest increases taken in the middle of this year, according to Elsevier’s data on the wholesale-acquisition cost of prescription drugs. Bloomberg earlier reported the Zolpimist increases.


Mr. Disbrow said Aytu’s increases for Zolpimist were different than other examples because the drug is for a lifestyle condition rather than a life-threatening disease, and generic options are available.

“It’s a luxury item. Patients can choose to be on the generic. We want to have it out there for patients who value their rapid sleep,” Mr. Disbrow said. He added that Aytu, which sells a drug for low testosterone, doesn’t depend on the Zolpimist price increases to raise sales. Aytu reported $2.7 million in revenue for the nine months ending March 31.

Mr. Disbrow said he expected most sleep-aid patients would buy the generics, and health plans would require people to try the generics before looking at other options. Doctors write more than 30 million zolpidem prescriptions a year, though fewer than 2,000 of them for Zolpimist, he said.

Still, the thousands of price hikes on Zolpimist and other drugs show that presidential pressure isn’t enough to stop drug companies from raising prices and for engaging in tactics like buying selling rights and then hiking prices.

“These types of increases indicate that public criticism, even from President Trump, are not enough to change the trajectory of drug costs,” said Michael Rea, chief executive of Rx Savings Solutions, which sells software to help employers and health insurers lower their drug spending.

Then again, when drug companies can sell one drug in the US for nearly $40,000 – and the same drug in Europe for $8 – there’s quite a bit of incentive for the gangster capitalists who run the world’s pharmaceutical firms to simply submit without a fight.

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