AbbVie promises it's sticking with CEO's price-hike pledge, at least through 2018

Facing heavy backlash over reports its executives considered dropping the company's pricing pledge, AbbVie maintained on Tuesday that it's sticking with the 10% price-hike limit for 2018.

The denial came a day after FiercePharma picked up on a note from Leerink analysts who met with AbbVie management last week and analyzed those talks in an 14-page report on their optimistic outlook for the company. Pricing—specifically, AbbVie's promise to limit price increases to less than 10% only once per year—was one element of the conversation, according to the report.

AbbVie's CEO Richard Gonzalez committed to limiting price hikes back in January as the drug industry suffered from fierce scrutiny on prices. The analysts wrote that executives believed they could revisit that pledge as attention to the issue has waned. AbbVie has historically driven revenue growth in part via price increases, particularly with its blockbuster immunology medication Humira.

After the watchdog group Public Citizen lambasted the idea in a press release late Monday, multiple news publications highlighted the discussion—and AbbVie issued a statement saying the reports had  "incorrectly characterized" its executives' statements.

"We evaluate specific pricing decisions on an annual basis, with careful consideration of a variety of factors," AbbVie said in a statement Tuesday. "For 2018, AbbVie will take one single digit price increase and will continue to act responsibly with respect to drug pricing." 

A company spokesperson didn't respond to follow-up questions about which specific statements the company disputed and how they had been mischaracterized.

The note from Leerink followed a prediction Bernstein analyst Ronny Gal made during an interview last month. Of 92 drugs his specialty pharma team tracks, none has posted price increases higher than 9.9% so far this year. He said companies will likely limit their price hikes "until the noise comes down."

"Then, someone will take a step up, and if there’s no response, more people will do it," Gal said in August. If AbbVie planned to be that company, then the response shows the noise continues.

After word of AbbVie's now-denied backpedal broke, Public Citizen was among the company's critics, saying in a statement that AbbVie's "manipulations epitomize Big Pharma maneuvering that has reduced public trust in the industry to record lows."

Humira is the world's best-selling drug, and company executives said they believe it will grow to $20 billion in peak sales. Price hikes at AbbVie have been a "meaningful contributor" to the company's growth, the analysts pointed out, and to growth for Humira and therapies in its class.