Alzheimer's drug maker sends a different message in the courtroom

John O'Connor
John O'Connor

It's almost impossible to turn on the tube these days without seeing an ad from a drug company. The typical scenario goes something like this: Person with a disease or problem is all smiles, thanks to the benefits of the advertised drug.

There's an underlying tone to these messages: Your friendly neighborhood pharmco is totally committed to your best possible health. But as the saying goes, actions can speak louder than words.

Actavis PLC, which makes the Alzheimer's drug Namenda, has joined a long-line of profits-above-all-else companies that try to engage in a tactic known as product hopping. This is a maneuver whereby a medication that's about to lose patent protection stops being sold or is removed completely. End users then have to use a slightly tweaked “superior” version instead.

Why would Actavist subsidiary Forest Labs limit the supply of a medication that helps slow Alzheimer's and brings relief to thousands? It's not as if the disease has suddenly been cured.

Let's just say there must be more than a billion reasons. Namenda's sales last year hit approximately $1.5 billion. So rather than watch generic manufacturers tap into that windfall, Forest Labs is now building market share for Namenda XR, a once-daily pill. In case you are wondering, the patent for Namenda XR runs through 2029, while Namenda's patent expires this month.

Of course, I'm hardly the only person who sees the old hard switch as somewhat problematic. Eric Schneiderman, the New York Attorney General, has filed an antitrust case against the firm. In December, he was able to convince a federal District Court to back an injunction that stopped the company from halting sales of its original Alzheimer's drug so that only the slow-release version would be available.

“A drug company manipulating vulnerable patients and forcing physicians to alter treatment plans unnecessarily simply to protect corporate profits is unethical and illegal,” he said.

In a hearing last month, defense attorney Lisa Blatt told the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that Actavis has little need for remorse.

“A company doesn't have to apologize for wanting to make money off its innovations,” Blatt testified before the three-judge panel. It remains to be seen which argument will be more persuasive.

For now, let's concede that Blatt is right about one thing. A company does not have to apologize for maximizing profits. In fact, she's merely repeating what most companies and many people truly believe.

But something tells me you won't be finding that view being shared in a Namenda XR ad any time soon.

John O'Connor is McKnight's Editorial Director.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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