Ties to Gilead, AbbVie and BMS raise questions about hep C drug value studies

Consultants at Precision Health Economics have often made value arguments for costly meds on behalf of pharma companies. (Image courtesy of Pexels.com)

For years, Big Pharma has utilized the help of academic experts at Precision Health Economics (PHE) to carry their message that groundbreaking treatments demand high prices. And as the costs of new hep C meds came under fire in recent years, some of the studies that have lauded the benefits of those drugs came from academics at the group, which is compensated by major players in the field, including Gilead.

That’s a finding raised in a new investigation by ProPublica, which documents the connections between staff at the consultancy and top pharma companies.

In working with the consultants, Big Pharma frequently counts on the firm to present value arguments in favor of its costly new drugs, the report states. But because the company and in turn its experts are compensated by pharma, questions have grown about the group's objectivity.

According to PHE’s website, pharma companies and policymakers around the world work with the company to “shape strategy, inform key healthcare decisions, and produce effective changes in public policy through insightful, issue-driven research.”

ProPublica highlighted the launch of expensive new hep C meds as one such case. Hep C drugmakers Gilead, AbbVie and Bristol-Myers Squibb have each worked with the consulting company, according to the piece.

Gilead caught heaps of flak when it launched Sovaldi at an $84,000 list price and Harvoni afterward at $94,500. A Senate investigation later showed how the company approached its launches, landing on those prices after considering higher numbers.

RELATED: Gilead considered $115K price for Sovaldi, Senate investigation says

After that brouhaha, economist and PHE cofounder Darius Lakdawalla was among a group of authors to publish a study that concluded society could gain $824 billion over 20 years by treating all diagnosed hep C patients.

Gilead states that “engagement by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies with academics is natural and expected,” according to a spokesperson. He added that the company requires that the connection is disclosed in any published research, addressing a point in the ProPublica piece that PHE’s ties aren’t always clear.

The group is “led by professors at elite research universities,” according to one of its brochures, and can assist companies with cost-benefit and pricing strategies, among a host of other services. At times, PHE’s calculations have come under criticism, with other researchers reporting trouble replicating the findings.

As ProPublica notes, the consultancy might have some influence in the new Trump administration. One of its cofounders reportedly served on the transition team, and a potential pick to head the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, M.D., was a former affiliate at the firm.

Defending itself, Gilead contends that ProPublica’s investigation focuses too much on list prices. In fact, the company’s spokesperson said that competition has taken such a toll on Harvoni that the “actual price paid across all payers has decreased by more than 50%.” 

Competition in the market has taken such a toll that Merck announced on Friday that it's taking a $2.9 billion write-down for a candidate to treat the disease. 

RELATED: Merck swallows $2.9B write-down of experimental hep C drug as market plummets

Bristol-Myers Squibb declined to comment, and AbbVie did not return a request for comment by press time.

Newfound attention to PHE and its clients comes as pharma works to defend its image after more than a year of scrutiny into its pricing freedom. Last month, President Donald Trump said the industry was “getting away with murder”; he toned that rhetoric back during a meeting with the industry a few weeks later.

RELATED: Can pharma fix its bad rep without directly addressing price hikes? It's going to spend millions trying

Industry group PhRMA is fighting price-control efforts in several states while also trying to buff the industry's image nationally with its “Go Boldly” campaign.