Oh, the Prices We Pay, Reloaded - Celgene Balks at Explaining High Price of Thalidomide

A brief article on Bloomberg.com implied that Celgene has been fighting efforts by the Canadian Patented Medicine Prices Review Board to get pricing data about the drug Thalidomid (thalidomide):
Celgene Corp., the biotechnology company specializing in blood-cancer medicines, will get a hearing before Canada’s highest court over the country’s demands to provide pricing information for the drug Thalomid.

The Supreme Court of Canada today agreed to hear Celgene’s appeal of a Federal Court of Appeal ruling that said Canada’s Patented Medicine Prices Review Board was entitled to information about the pricing of the drug. The high court gave no reason for its decision.

Celgene’s two top-selling drugs are Revlimid and Thalomid, for a form of blood-cancer called multiple myeloma. They brought in more than 80 percent of the company’s total $2.25 billion in 2008 revenue.

It should be no surprise that Celgene may be sensitive about the price of Thalidomid. We posted back in 2005 about the stratospheric prices of new drugs that seemed disproportionate to manufacturing and development costs on one hand, and the value of the drugs for patients on the other. We noted that thalidomide, a very old drug that notoriously was found to cause birth defects when it was given to pregnant women, but that then showed promise as an anti-cancer drug, was being marketed in the US for $29 per capsule (approximately $25,000 a year), while a generic form sold in Brazil for $0.07 per capsule.
The amount Celgene manages to make from this very old (and demonstrably cheap to produce) molecule is vivid, albeit anecdotal evidence about what has gone wrong with health care prices in the US.  Despite health care insurance companies' protestations that their goal is to provide reasonably priced health care, they seem utterly incapable of negotiating down the prices of even the most obviously over-priced drugs.  And the US government Medicare program so far is prohibited by law from negotiating prices.  How our supposed free market health care system has tilted so far in favor of pharmaceuticals is a reason to wonder, but ought to be reason to investigate. 
Meanwhile, Celgene's 2010 annual report shows that the company has sold more than $400 million worth of Thalidomid yearly since 2007. The company's total sales in 2009 were $2.567 billion, while it spent $795 million on research and development, and $754 million on general, sales, and administrative expenses. According to the company's 2009 proxy statement, in 2008 its CEO received over $8.5 million, its COO over $5.1 million, its CFO over $2.1 million in compensation, and a senior vice president over $3.0 million. The total compensation of its five highest-paid hired managers (compare to a total of 2813 full-time employees in 2009), approximately $20.5 million 2008, was was approximately 2.6% of the company's net income in 2009, and just under 1% of its total sales.
As we have said previously, so the health care bubble continues to inflate.  One cause is"compensation madness," including "insiders hijacking established institutions for their personal benefit."  Another is the amazing acquiescence of those who pay bills at all levels, from the individuals who ultimately fund health care through salary dollars not earned, health insurance premiums, co-pays and the like, and tax payments, through the health care insurers and government agencies who did not balk at paying $25,000 a year for thalidomide in 2005.  If we really want to provide accessible health care of good quality and a reasonable cost, we will need to develop mechanisms to pay more reasonable amounts for health care goods and services. This will require some courage facing down the corporate and organizational insiders who have made themselves very rich from the current craziness.