Hillary's latest drug-price tweet put the fear of government action into biopharma stocks

Hillary Clinton at a Human Rights Campaign event. (photo by Gage Skidmore courtesy of Flickr.com)

The power of a Hillary Clinton tweet was proven again Wednesday, when the presidential candidate sent out a missive about drug prices. Biotech stocks, down. Pharma stocks, down. Even U.K. drugmakers suffered.

Investors have a point: With yet another pricing scandal on the airwaves and social media, U.S. lawmakers are on the warpath and the public is primed for government action. And if Clinton ends up in the White House, she promises, she’ll back legislation that would open up branded drugmakers to more competition and give more negotiating power to government programs.

After the tweet--and a Clinton statement reiterating her stand--AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Shire and Hikma Pharmaceuticals shares slipped Thursday morning in London. Merck & Co., Allergan and Biogen fell in the U.S. And of course there was Mylan, at the center of the current pricing storm. Its huge hikes on EpiPen triggered the backlash, and its shares were down 5.4% at day’s end--though they’d begun to recover Thursday on its new patient assistance plans.

It was a familiar sight: A Clinton tweet amid the Martin Shkreli drug price scandal last September sent biotech stocks reeling.

After this new EpiPen controversy went public, lawmakers quickly called for investigations. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was among them; she’s pushing three bills that would give Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices, allow reimportation of cheaper meds from Canada, and crack down on branded drugmakers’ efforts to delay generic versions of their products.

More recently, Sens. Susan Collins and Claire McCaskill on Wednesday demanded an “emergency briefing” in a letter to Mylan CEO Heather Bresch. Sen. Charles Grassley wrote the FDA to suggest speeding up generic EpiPen copies; he even questioned whether the product could be opened up to over-the-counter competition. 

If elected, Clinton might not even need Congress to do something about drug prices, a Los Angeles Times columnist pointed out. The president's power to drive agency action might suffice. Under the Bayh-Dole Act, the government has "march-in rights" to open generic competition to a drug considered out of reach to patients who need it.

Activist groups recently called on the Department of Health and Human Services to exercise that right on Medivation's prostate cancer pill Xtandi, but HHS officials demurred. The agency has never marched in, not in the 36 years since the act was passed in 1980--but theoretically, Clinton could make that happen on selected drugs if elected.

Even Donald Trump, candidate for a party that typically decries government crackdowns on business, has backed Medicare price negotiation in the past--and took the opportunity to criticize Mylan in a quick aside.

But it’s not just the EpiPen scandal, or notorious price-hiker Martin Shkreli, or Valeant Pharmaceuticals’ egregious price hikes. These may be the most visible--and most discussed--increases. But analysts, lawmakers and journalists have called attention to the fact that slow-but-steady price increases are common across the pharma business.

Pfizer has drawn fire for the practice. All the diabetes drugmakers have as well, with repeated coverage of the repeated increases in insulin prices over the past decade. And other drugmakers have, like Mylan, raised their prices on a product as it neared the end of its patent life--sometimes to push patients over to newer, patent-protected meds.

PhRMA and Pfizer are running image campaigns to emphasize that drugmakers spend billions on developing new, lifesaving meds. But in this climate, feel-good ads aren’t likely to be enough. And if the public continues to “discover” big drug price increases--and talk them up on social media for big news outlets to hear--then the calls for action in Washington will only get louder.

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