CEO Under Fire for $89,000 Drug Has a History of Steep Price Hikes

  • Sanders, Cummings requested information on increases in 2014
  • Marathon CEO led company that hiked price on babies’ drug

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The CEO of the latest drugmaker to face criticism over a product’s high price has a history of steep hikes on other drugs and at past companies.

Marathon Pharmaceuticals LLC Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Aronin, under fire for setting an $89,000 price on the company’s drug for a rare, deadly muscle disease, was questioned in a letter more than two years ago by Washington lawmakers about mark-ups on two heart drugs. Years earlier, as the leader of another company, Aronin took high price increases on a drug used to treat babies with a congenital defect.

Marathon increased the prices of the two older, off-patent heart drugs, Isuprel and Nitropress, by almost 400 percent over two years, according to an October 2014 letter to the CEO from Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Elijah Cummings. Marathon sold the two drugs in 2015 to Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., which further raised their prices, helping set off a national debate over drug costs. 

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“This dramatic increase in generic drug prices results in decreased access for patients,” Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said in the 2014 letter to Aronin. The lawmakers requested documents and information related to company sales, expenses and reasons for the price increases.

Aronin declined to be interviewed through a company spokesman.

Major Issue

The high cost of prescription drugs has become a major issue, with leaders such as Allergan Plc CEO Brent Saunders urging others to follow his company’s pledge to limit increases, while the lobby group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has begun a new public relations effort to bolster the industry’s image. President Donald Trump has accused drugmakers of “getting away with murder” on prices, and suggested that manufacturers should be forced to bid on sales to government programs.

While new drugs to treat cancer and rare disease can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, attention has also focused on price increases on older, generic drugs that have lost patent protection and are generally cheaper. The Generic Pharmaceutical Association trade group said Tuesday that it has been renamed the Association for Accessible Medicines and is launching a campaign focusing on the stories of patients whose health is improved by generic medicines.

Aronin was earlier chief executive of Ovation Pharmaceuticals Inc., which was sued by the Federal Trade Commission after raising the price of an older drug used to treat a deadly congenital heart defect in babies by almost 1,300 percent, from $36 a vial to nearly $500 a vial. The company raised the price after buying the rights to a similar drug, for which it charged a “similarly inflated price,” the FTC said in 2008.

Danish drugmaker H. Lundbeck A/S bought Ovation in 2009. In 2011, the FTC lost its case when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed with a federal district court’s decision that the two drugs were in separate product markets.

On Monday, Sanders and Cummings asked Marathon for information on pricing for its $89,000 drug, Emflaza. The drug treats Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an inherited condition that mainly afflicts young boys, weakening their muscles and robbing them of the ability to walk, stand and breathe. 

Patients have been able to acquire a generic version, deflazacort, for about $1,000 from pharmacies overseas, the lawmakers said in their letter. Marathon said it’s now planning to delay its introduction of the drug, which was cleared for the U.S. market last week.

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