Drug Giants Turn to Leading Professors to Justify Hefty Price Tags

“Academics for hire” shape pricing debate

To help promote their expensive new cures for infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), three major pharma companies––AbbVie, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Gilead Sciences––recruited the consulting firm Precision Health Economics, whose roster includes leading economists and health care experts at the nation’s top universities. When AbbVie funded a special issue of the American Journal of Managed Care on hepatitis C research, current or former associates of Precision Health Economics wrote half of the issue, according to ProPublica. A Stanford professor who had previously consulted for the firm served as guest editor-in-chief.

Moreover, at a congressional briefing last May on HCV, three of the four panelists were current or former Precision Health Economics consultants. One was the firm’s cofounder, Darius Lakdawalla, a professor at the University of Southern California.

Referring to the high cost of the new HCV therapies, which can run $1,000 per day, Lakdawalla said: “The returns to society actually exist even at the high prices. Some people who are just looking at the problem as a pure cost-effectiveness problem said some of these prices in some ways are too low.”

At the briefing, Lakdawalla didn’t mention his affiliation with Precision Health Economics, although it was listed in the journal issue that was provided to attendees.

While collaboration between higher education and industry is not unusual, the professors at Precision Health Economics have taken it to the next level, ProPublica says. “Their activities illustrate the growing influence of academics-for-hire in shaping the debate on issues ranging from climate change to antitrust policy, which ultimately affect the quality of life and the household budgets of ordinary Americans, including what they pay for critical medications,” the independent investigative news organization adds.

“This is just an extension of the way that the drug industry has been involved in every phase of medical education and medical research,” Harvard Medical School professor Eric G. Campbell told ProPublica. “They are using this group of economists, it appears, to provide data in high-profile journals to have a positive impact on policy.”

Precision Health Economics may be well positioned to influence the Trump administration, the article suggests. Tomas Philipson, an economist at the University of Chicago and the company’s third cofounder, reportedly served briefly as a senior health care advisor for the Trump transition team. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, reported to be a candidate for commissioner of the FDA, is a clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine and a former “academic affiliate” of Precision Health Economics, according to the company’s website.

Last month, four researchers at Precision Health Economics warned in an article that any government controls on drug prices could shorten the average American’s life by two years by discouraging the development of new medications.

Source: ProPublica; February 23, 2017.