Pharma Company Hikes Price on Aid-in-Dying Drug

California law may mean big profits from old medication

When California’s aid-in-dying law takes effect this June, terminally ill patients who decide to end their lives could be faced with a hefty bill for the lethal drug secobarbital (Seconal). It retails for more than $3,000. Last year, the drug’s manufacturer, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, doubled the price one month after California lawmakers proposed legalizing the practice, according to Kaiser Health News (KHN).

Originally developed in the 1930s as a sleeping pill, secobarbital fell out of favor when people died from taking too much or from taking it in combination with alcohol. But when intended as a lethal medication to hasten the death of someone with a terminal disease, secobarbital is the drug of choice.

Most pharma companies justify steep price hikes by pointing to high research costs. But that’s not the case with secobarbital, according to retired Oregon physician Dr. David Grube.

“It’s not a complicated thing to make; there’s no research being done on it; there’s no development,” he told KHN. “That to me is unconscionable.”

Valeant bought several other drugs at the same time it bought secobarbital, raising some of those prices as much as 500%.That sparked a congressional investigation into its pricing practices.

Seconal went off patent in the early 1990s. There were some generics for a while, but then the demand shrank, and manufacturers abandoned them.

“So that meant when the current company bought it, they didn’t have any generic competition, simply because the market got so small,” said Mick Kolassa, founding partner of Medical Marketing Economics. “So in situations like that, a company can acquire it and raise the price.”

Under the California aid-in-dying law, it is optional for health insurance companies to cover the costs of the practice. Most private insurers plan to do so, according to the California Association of Health Plans. But for patients who aren’t covered, there is a cheaper alternative: a three-part drug cocktail that can be mixed by a compounding pharmacy for about $400.

Grube says the cocktail works just as well as secobarbital, but doctors usually don’t prescribe it because of the hassle some patients have to go through to get it. Secobarbital, on the other hand, is a ready-made pill available at most retail drugstores.

Source: Kaiser Health News; March 28, 2016.