Concordia catches antitrust scrutiny over 5,700% price rise for thyroid drug

Concordia Healthcare, whose executives are shown here opening the Toronto Stock Exchange in 2014, is now involved in two U.K. antitrust investigations.

Concordia Healthcare has already caught the ire of government watchdogs and pharmacy benefits managers for its price hikes. Now, add one more investigation to its list: A U.K. antitrust probe into its pricing for liothyonine, a thyroid drug that's now 57 times more expensive than it was in 2006.

That's according to the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority, which has been drilling into drug price increases over the past few years. It recently levied its biggest fine ever—against Pfizer and Flynn Pharma, for driving up the price of an epilepsy drug. That fine is under appeal.

The agency is focusing on price increases for generic drugs, particularly those that face little competition. A rash of generic price hikes in the U.S. has also prompted scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers, with some of the industry's biggest names as targets, including Teva Pharmaceutical and Mylan. Just last month, U.S. states alleging price-fixing in the generics market expanded their legal claims to include Mylan's president, Rajiv Malik, and Emcure CEO Satish Mehta.

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In the U.K., the CMA asserted that the National Health Service paid £258 per pack of Concordia's liothyonine as of July 2017, up from about £4.46 per pack in 2016 at a time when the company's production costs didn't appreciably increase. The health system's spending on the drug rose to more than £34 million last year from just £600,000 in 2006, the agency said.

"Pharmaceutical companies which abuse their position and overcharge for drugs are forcing the NHS—and the U.K. taxpayer—to pay over the odds for important medical treatments," CMA chief Andrea Coscelli said in a Tuesday statement. "We allege that Concordia used its market dominance in the supply of liothyronine tablets to do exactly that."

This is Concordia's second run-in with the CMA, which is also investigating "illegal" deals between the Canada-based drugmaker and Actavis. According to the CMA, Actavis paid Concordia to quash plans to introduce its own version of an adrenal gland treatment, allowing Actavis to maintain its monopoly and keep prices high.

The allegations aren't proven, and the company now has an opportunity to respond. Concordia said the pricing of liothyronine has been "conducted openly and transparently with the Department of Health in the U.K. over a period of 10 years," according to a statement provided to the Financial Times. "Over that time, significant investment has been made in this medicine to ensure its continued availability for patients in the U.K., to the specifications required by the Medicines Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the U.K."

RELATED: Mylan President Rajiv Malik targeted as states expand price-fixing suit

And those allegations come in addition to separate claims that Actavis broke competition law with “excessive and unfair pricing” on hydrocortisone tablets, which authorities said spiked in price by 12,000% over 8 years.

The CMA in 2016 fined GlaxoSmithKline and several generics makers for "pay-for-delay" deals that kept copycat versions of GSK's antidepressant Seroxat (paroxetine, also known as Paxil). Those fines are under appeal

And more may be on the way. In its Tuesday statement, the CMA noted that it is working on a half-dozen more investigations into competition and pricing in the pharma business. Two of those were disclosed last month; though the companies targeted weren't named, the agency did say it plans to gather information on potential violations through April of next year. Like its previous probes, these two CMA investigations are related to generic drugs.