Despite reports from Merck and Johnson & Johnson, pharma's net prices 'likely not coming down': analyst

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After recent transparency reports, an analyst disputes that pharma's net prices are falling. (Pixabay)

Are drug prices coming down? Two leading drugmakers presented numbers suggesting the industry is facing increased pricing pressure, but Bernstein analyst Ronny Gal remains skeptical.

Johnson & Johnson recently reported that net prices fell 4.6% in 2017 after the company paid out $15 billion in rebates and discounts. Merck said its net prices fell 1.9% last year. 

Of J&J's disclosure, Gal wrote on Monday that he believes the situation "does not represent 'real' pressure on the industry, but rather specific company circumstances." 

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Merck's net price decline for 2017 included "three major patent expiries and its methodology calculates same-to-same price increases, and thus new drug launches at higher prices and mix-shift to higher price drugs are excluded," according to Gal. 

Eli Lilly, for its part, realized a portfolio-level price increase of 6%, the drugmaker reported, a level Gal said is more "typical" for the industry. 

RELATED: Johnson & Johnson's $15B in 2017 discounts lead to negative price change, but are consumers benefiting? 

A J&J spokesperson told FiercePharma the data in the company's report "clearly demonstrate that in 2017 the aggregate net price of our medicines in the U.S. decreased." Even without price decreases for blockbuster Remicade due to biosimilar competition, prices across the portfolio were down after payer negotiations, she said. 

"Our analysis takes into account relative product sales volume in the calculation of aggregate price change," she added. "While price changes varied by product, as a whole our net price realized was -4.6 percent." 

Merck's president of global human health Adam Schechter wrote in an accompanying piece that his company's data show that Merck "continues to be responsible in our approach, and that the competitive marketplace for pharmaceuticals is working."

Amid stepped-up pressure on prices in recent years, the pharmaceutical industry has pointed to the role of pharmacy benefit managers in inflating prices, saying drug middlemen are collecting more money than ever as rebates and discounts rise. PBMs say their strategies save the healthcare system and that drug companies set their prices. 

RELATED: Behind-the-scenes rebates take a growing bite out of pharma sales, industry-funded study says 

Last year, a report funded by the industry trade group PhRMA found rebates and discounts have grown considerably in recent years, to $106 billion in 2015 from $67 billion in 2013. 

In 2017, Johnson & Johnson said it paid $15 billion in rebates and discounts. Eli Lilly is discounting 51% off its list prices, on average, according to its recent report. 

While the reports may add to the story surrounding drug prices and discounting, they're ultimately only a few data points into pricing trends. Eli Lilly, Merck and J&J each released the first iterations of their pricing reports last year in response to growing criticism. Express Scripts, a top PBM, released its own report earlier this year outlining a 1.5% per-person increase in prescription drug spending for 2017, the lowest amount in 24 years of tracking drug spending trends.

RELATED: Half-off sale at Eli Lilly as drug rebating climbs to 51% in 2017 

Meanwhile, Wells Fargo analyst David Maris and SunTrust analyst Yatin Suneja offered up some pharma pricing news of their own on Monday. Maris and his team recently published a March pricing report, detailing 108 price increases and 30 price decreases around the industry. They range from an 87% price decrease to a 1,791% hike on Major Pharmaceuticals' captopril. Akorn markets 15 of the top 50 products with price rises in Maris' March pricing report, according to the analyst.

Since the monthly report, Teva increased the price of a generic nausea med by 202%, Mallinckroct raised the price of Ofirmev by 7% and SanPower boosted Provenge's list price by 6%, among other increases, Maris wrote Monday. 

For Celgene, two recent price hikes are set to generate about $35 million in sales this year, Suneja wrote in another note. The biotech boosted sticker prices for Otezla and Abraxane by 5.9% this month, according to the analyst. Suneja believes Celgene will likely capture one-third of the Otezla hike and two-thirds of the Abraxane increase after negotiations.