Groups urge FTC to investigate vaccine 'bundling'

Could Sanofi Pasteur ($SNY) and Merck ($MRK) soon be under the U.S. government's microscope? Several watchdog groups are calling upon the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the two drugmakers for allegedly forcing doctors to buy bundled vaccines. If doctors refused to do so, the groups claim, they'd have to pay extremely high prices for the vaccines individually.

The groups--Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices, the Campaign for America's Future, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group--allege the companies are making it difficult for doctors to effectively vaccinate children with their bundling practices.

CREW says it initially brought the issue to the FTC's attention in 2010, but now it has a whistleblower who has more evidence about alleged nefarious activities. Healthcare groups would get discounts as long as they agreed to buy particular vaccines, and if anyone went astray and bought another company's goods, the practice would lose its discount, the group alleges.

And these actions can have consequences--particularly for children's health, the groups maintain. For instance, if a practice wanted to buy GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) HPV vaccine Cervarix--which the group calls more effective than the Merck rival, Gardasil--these agreements prevent it from doing so.

"Parents assume doctors are making drug decisions based on the patient, but, in fact, they are making decisions based on the price," CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. "That will be cold comfort to a young woman who discovers she might have avoided cervical cancer if only she'd received the right vaccine as a girl."

But neither Merck nor Sanofi Pasteur are taking the allegations lying down. Both companies have told The Hill their arrangements are lawful, adding they are committed to meeting the needs of patients.

"Those negotiations are private, and all individual contracts are confidential," a Merck representative tells the newspaper in an email. "The terms of the contracts are lawful, and we strongly disagree with any statement or implication suggesting otherwise."

- see CREW's statement
- check out more from The Hill