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AIDS Advocates, Religious Groups Protest Norvir Price Increase at Abbott Shareholders' Meeting

April 27, 2004

Several dozen AIDS patients and patient advocates on Friday attended Abbott Laboratories' annual shareholders' meeting to protest the company's decision to increase the price of its antiretroviral drug Norvir by 400%, the Chicago Tribune reports (Japsen, Chicago Tribune, 4/24). In December 2003, Abbott increased from $54 per month to $265 per month the per-patient wholesale price of Norvir, which is known generically as ritonavir. Norvir is used primarily as a booster for other protease inhibitors, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb's Reyataz and Merck's Crixivan (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/20). Matt Sharp, an advocate from AIDS Treatment Activists Coalition, said, "We're demanding a price rollback" (Comerford, Chicago Daily Herald, 4/24). Several group representatives "pleaded their case" before shareholders, the Tribune reports (Chicago Tribune, 4/24). Terri Ford of AIDS Healthcare Foundation during the question period of the meeting asked, "How can the reputational harm caused by all of this negative outcry possibly be beneficial to investors?" (Dixon, Reuters, 4/23). AHF last month filed suit against Abbott claiming that the drug maker used false advertising to say that state Medicaid programs would not be affected by the price increase (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/20). The company also is the target of other government investigations, lawsuits and doctor boycotts in connection with the price increase, the Chicago Sun-Times reports (Knowles, Chicago Sun-Times, 4/24). Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) in February announced that her office had opened an investigation into whether the price increase of Norvir was designed to increase the price of antiretroviral drug combinations that use Norvir as a booster and steer patients toward Abbott's newer antiretroviral drug Kaletra. Kaletra, which does not need a booster because it includes ritonavir, costs about $18.78 per patient per day, or $563.40 per patient per month, and has a longer patent life (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/20).

Abbott, Shareholder Response
Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, president and CEO of Abbott's pharmaceutical group, told shareholders that the company knows of no patients who have been unable to access the drug under the new pricing policy, according to the Tribune. The company froze prices for individuals covered by government assistance programs, including Medicaid beneficiaries, who represent 54% of Norvir patients, the Tribune reports. The company also said it provides financial assistance to HIV-positive patients and has made the drug available free-of-charge to the 4% of Norvir users who do not have insurance (Chicago Tribune, 4/24). In addition, private insurers continue to cover the drug, and copayments have not risen, Leiden said, adding that 42% of patients who use Norvir have private health insurance (Chicago Sun-Times, 4/24). Shareholders "resoundingly supported" Abbott management and defeated several resolutions supported by religious groups, including one proposed by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility that called on the company to assess the epidemic's effects on the company's business to determine how much the company was spending in relation to its bottom line, according to the Tribune. About 8% of shareholders supported the proposal, which was a high enough percentage to allow the center to bring the proposal back up at next year's meeting (Chicago Tribune, 4/24).

Related Editorial
The federal government should "exercise" its right to "advance the sale of cheaper generic versions of any drugs that federal research dollars helped develop," including Norvir, a Rochester Democrat & Chronicle editorial says. U.S. patients this year will pay $7,000 for a year's supply of Norvir, compared with $720 a year in Belgium, the editorial says. But the "bill for research and development costs, as well as the drug industry's plentiful profits, falls squarely on the United States' shoulders," the editorial says. As a result, U.S. seniors are "struggl[ing] with drug payments," insurance costs for prescription drugs are "skyrocket[ing]" and local governments are becoming severely burdened by health care costs, the editorial says. The government therefore must work with pharmaceutical companies to "make the pricing of drugs fairer," the editorial says (Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, 4/26).

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