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More trouble: Drug industry consolidation

April 8, 2021

Topics: Quote of the Day

Over 30 years, dramatic consolidation has meant higher prices, fewer treatment options and less incentive to innovate

By Robin Feldman
The Washington Post, April 6, 2021

In the past few decades, three waves of mergers have substantially increased concentration in the pharmaceutical industry.

All told, between 1995 and 2015, the 60 leading pharmaceutical companies merged to only 10.

As a result, now only a handful of manufacturers are responsible for sourcing the vast majority of prescription drugs: Just four companies, for example, produced more than 50 percent of all generic drugs in 2017.

Drug companies were drawn to merging because of the lure of increased market power, improved synergies, larger economies of scale and more diverse product portfolios.

In the period following merger waves one and two, the industry generated fewer new molecular entities each year compared to pre-merger levels. Merged drug companies also spent proportionally less on research than their non-merged competitors.

Consolidation also enabled drugmakers to directly quell competition through what were known as “killer acquisitions,” in which they acquired innovative peers solely to stop potential competition.

In short, consumers were the losers from the two waves of drug company mergers. They confronted higher prices and fewer choices — and saw companies exploring fewer paths that might produce breakthroughs. To make matters worse, around 2010, another wave of mergers began.

As with the earlier waves, giant drug companies have merged. But in a new twist, in recent years, most consolidation has featured bigger players acquiring smaller start-ups. The difference reflects a dramatic shift in the structure of the pharmaceutical industry. Faced with stagnating research productivity, large drugmakers now rely on outsourcing their new drug research to start-ups and other small pharmaceutical firms.

Increasingly, these smaller players specialize in high-risk research and early drug development, with larger firms then gobbling them up and navigating the FDA’s regulatory process. For example, 63 percent of all new molecular entities in 2018 came from smaller biopharma firms, compared with just 31 percent in 2009.

The end result of now three waves of pharmaceutical consolidation is decreased or diverted new drug innovation, fewer treatment options and higher prices. Consumers have lost as firms fuse together to bolster the bottom line.

Robin Feldman is director of the UC Hastings Center for Innovation.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Yesterday we discussed consolidation of UnitedHealth/Optum and how it has become a mega-corporation of the medical-industrial complex. Today’s selection discusses consolidation within the pharmaceutical industry. The article describes how we can expect decreased or diverted drug innovation, fewer treatment options, and above all, higher prices. Works for the industry, but not so well for the people.

We’re just trying to introduce single payer Medicare for All. How much impact can that have on these mega-corporations? Where is our government in all of this? Aren’t they supposed to protect us? Maybe we’re aiming too low by advocating for a social insurance program. Maybe we should be taking over the industry so that we can gear it up to better serve us, the people. International comparisons do rate national health services very high in performance. Maybe if we talk about it a little more we can convince them that Medicare for All is a compromise that they can live with. We think we can too.

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

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Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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