Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Overgenerous protection?

I'd never heard of the Express Scripts prescription-price index before I read 'Much ado about something', an article on generic drugs companies in the latest issue of the Economist (it may be available here but it may be paywalled, I can't easily tell as I've got a subscription). The article said that "whereas the average price for branded medications in America has risen by 127% over the past seven years, the average for generics is down by 63% over that period".

I was rather intrigued by this from a competition perspective, so I went to the source. Express Scripts is a US listed company that provides various pharmacy processing and management services, and it has a website, 'The Lab', where it publishes a range of interesting analysis and research. One of its publications is its Drug Trend Report, and on p57 you'll find this graph of the prescription-price index, which measures the prices of the most commonly prescribed drugs in both their branded and generic versions (it's also on p6 of the Executive Summary pdf).

It's hazardous drawing conclusions from one country, and one country with a rather dysfunctional health system at that, but these patterns do lead you to wonder whether patent protection hasn't been overdone. Yes, of course, the costs of developing safe new drugs are high and rising, and patents should enable drugmakers to recover their costs and earn an appropriately risk-adjusted rate of return on their outlays. And yes, you'd have to do the heavy lifting of comparing actual and fair WACCs to be make a fully informed call (and even then there'd be judgement calls involved). But price divergences of this order at a minimum make you wonder whether the length or scope of protection haven't been overdone. Overgenerous protection  would also help explain the squalid trade of branded producers bribing potential generic competitors not to produce (as I wrote about here, here and here).

I'm hesitant even to mention the Trans Pacific Partnership - every anti-trade nutter in the country will be reaching for their tin-foil helmet - and I'm going to reserve final judgement on the thing till I see all of it as a package. But if, as has been widely speculated, one of the elements is extended life for intellectual property protection, then it's probably a step in the wrong direction.

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