Genentech tries rebates to goose Lucentis use

They say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But can Genentech rebates switch more eye doctors to Lucentis from Avastin than the company's strong-arm techniques did? We'll soon find out.

As the New York Times reports today, the Roche unit is offering ophthalmologists tens of thousands of dollars' worth of confidential rebates every quarter if they use increasing amounts of Lucentis, the injectable drug approved to treat age-related macular degeneration. The aim is to woo docs to Lucentis, which costs $2,000 per dose, away from the company's cancer drug Avastin, which has proven to work against AMD and, when given at eye-sized doses, costs a small fraction of that.

For some years now, eye doctors have been using Avastin off-label as an AMD treatment, obtaining it from compounding pharmacies that repackage the cancer drug for eye use. And for some years, Genentech has been trying to induce those doctors to switch to Lucentis, for obvious reasons. The company even tried to curtail Avastin sales to compounding pharmacies, to cut off ophthalmologists' supply of the drug, but backed off when the doctors protested vociferously.

As the NYT points out, Medicare foots the bill either way; most AMD patients are seniors covered by the government insurance program. As such, eye docs' Avastin use has saved the government plenty of money--and so lawmakers have kept a close eye on the Avastin vs. Lucentis fight. The National Eye Institute is funding a head-to-head study of the two drugs as well. If the new rebates work, Medicare's drug bill is likely to rise, Sen. Herb Kohl tells the Times.

"This rebate program appears to be an attempt to reverse the trend of significantly reduced reimbursements that Genentech has been receiving from Medicare for Lucentis," Kohl tells the newspaper. "I am highly doubtful that Medicare will benefit in any way from the rebates being offered to doctors."

- read the NYT story