Pfizer's Read 'enthusiastic' about president's ideas, some of them at least

Ian Read
Pfizer CEO Ian Read

Pfizer CEO Ian Read says he is “enthusiastic” about some of the potential changes President Trump is proposing for healthcare, like tax reform and regulatory streamlining. But without taking the president on directly, Read indicated less support for other proposals, like potentially allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

Read was was among Big Pharma CEOs invited to the confab with President Trump last week but was unable to attend because Pfizer was reporting earnings. Still he has heard all about the meeting in which the president promised tax reform and a speedier drug approval process. He urged them to manufacture in the U.S. but also lectured them on the need to get drug prices down. In the past he has said he supported allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, as private insurers do.

In an interview with the public radio program Hear and Now, Read talked about some of the ideas coming out of the meeting. When it comes to Medicare price negotiations, he said the program is already benefiting from drug negotiations that occur outside of the federal program.

“Let me say firstly, the drug prices are negotiated every day,” Read told program host Jeremy Hobson. “It's not as if you produce a new drug, and you bring it to market and you say, 'Here's my price.' You've gotta get the Uniteds and the PBMs and the Humanas of the world to agree that your product has value.”

And Medicare has benefited from that, Read said, calling it “one of the most successful programs since its inception,” and pointing to its low premiums and high approval rating.

“So that's an example of tremendous negotiation from the private sector to ensure that Medicare is a program that meets patients' needs,” the CEO said.

In terms of talk in the administration about the need to overhaul the FDA, Read said the agency does some great work that it does not get credit for but is also programmed to be “risk averse.” Some of the people that the Trump administration has mentioned as possible FDA leaders have suggested that safety, but not efficacy, should be the measure for a drug’s approval. You need both, Read said.  

"Let's start with saying, clearly there's a role for the FDA making sure products are safe, and all products have a balance between their safety and how efficacious they are. So I respect that from the FDA,” Read told Hobson.

He said the agency doesn’t get credit for things like bringing to market early a product like Pfizer’s breast cancer drug Ibrance, which was the first in a new class of CDK 4/6 inhibitors, and which has already seen big sales since its February 2015 approval.

“They never get applauded, they never get congratulated because they brought a product early to market, like Ibrance, which is the oncology division of the FDA, which is a pretty good example of how a really good regulator should work—brings products forward, accelerates them, gets them out to treat patients,” Read said. “But the FDA never gets applauded for that. They only get pilloried if the product goes wrong. So they're totally risk averse.”

And when it comes to the promised dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, Read demurred, saying that the program clearly needs some reworking but that he doesn’t “really have a clear sight on the way through.”

He said he didn’t think the ACA has provided much new business to Big Pharma because most of the insurance programs offered through it will not pay for new, innovative meds.

The Pfizer CEO said “there was sort of an implied promise from the government that, if we paid all these fees and all these taxes to help fund the Affordable Care Act, there would be expanded business through the people who are getting insured. Frankly, most of the expanded insurance base do not use innovative products, because the insurance is not of a great quality."

Despite Trump’s insistence at the meeting that drugmakers get prices down, at least one CEO that attended said he believes the U.S. will still be willing to pay top dollar for innovative meds.

Following the meeting, Roche CEO Severin Schwan told the Wall Street Journal, “If you have true innovation, with true added value, the U.S. will be the first country to honor that innovation."

Editor's Note: The story was updated to make clear that while invited, Pfizer CEO Ian Read was not at the meeting with President Trump because the company reported earnings that day.