THE doctor was dumbfounded: a drug that used to cost $50 was now selling for $28,000 for a 5-milliliter vial.
The physician, Dr. Ladislas Lazaro IV, remembered occasionally prescribing this anti-inflammatory, named H.P. Acthar Gel, for gout back in the early 1990s. Then the drug seemed to fade from view. Dr. Lazaro had all but forgotten about it, until a sales representative from a company called Questcor Pharmaceuticals appeared at his office and suggested that he try it for various rheumatologic conditions.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dr. Lazaro, a rheumatologist in Lafayette, La., says of the price increase.
How the price of this drug rose so far, so fast is a story for these troubled times in American health care — a tale of aggressive marketing, questionable medicine and, not least, out-of-control costs. At the center of it is Questcor, which turned the once-obscure Acthar into a hugely profitable wonder drug and itself into one of Wall Street’s highest fliers.
At least until recently, that is. Now some doctors, insurance companies and investors are beginning to have doubts about whether the drug is really any better than much cheaper alternatives. Short-sellers have written scathing criticisms of the company, questioning its marketing tactics and predicting that its shareholders are highly vulnerable.
That Acthar is even a potential blockbuster is a remarkable turn of events, considering that the drug was developed in the 1950s by a division of Armour & Company, the meatpacking company that once ruled the Union Stock Yards of Chicago. As in the 1950s, Acthar is still extracted from the pituitary glands of slaughtered pigs — essentially a byproduct of the meatpacking industry.
The most important use of Acthar has been to treat infantile spasms, also known as West syndrome, a rare, sometimes fatal epileptic disorder that generally strikes before the age of 1.
For several years, Questcor, which is based in Anaheim, lost money on Acthar because the drug’s market was so small. In 2007, it raised the price overnight, to more than $23,000 a vial, from $1,650, bringing the cost of a typical course of treatment for infantile spasms to above $100,000. It said it needed the high price to keep the drug on the market.
“We have this drug at a very high price right now because, really, our principal market is infantile spasms,” Don M. Bailey, Questcor’s chief executive, told analysts in 2009. “And we only have about 800 patients a year. It’s a very, very small — tiny — market.”
Companies often charge stratospheric prices for drugs for rare diseases — known as orphan drugs — and Acthar’s price is not as high as some. Society generally tolerates those costs to encourage drug companies to develop crucial, possibly lifesaving drugs for these often neglected diseases.
But Questcor did almost no research or development to bring Acthar to market, merely buying the rights to the drug from its previous owner for $100,000 in 2001. And while the manufacturing of Acthar is complex, it accounts for only about 1 cent of every dollar that Questcor charges for the drug.
Moreover, the tiny “orphan” market soon became much bigger. Before long, Questcor began marketing the drug for multiple sclerosis, nephrotic syndrome and rheumatologic conditions, even though there is little evidence that Acthar is more effective for those other conditions than alternatives that are far cheaper. And the company did so without being required to prove that the drug actually works. That is because Acthar was approved for use in 1952, before the Food and Drug Administration required clinical trials to show a drug is effective for a particular disease. Acthar is essentially grandfathered in.
Today, only about 10 percent of the drug’s sales are for infantile spasms. The new uses, Mr. Bailey has told analysts, represent multibillion-dollar opportunities for Acthar and Questcor, its sole maker.
The results have been beyond even the company’s wildest dreams. Sales of Acthar, which accounts for essentially all of Questcor’s sales, totaled nearly $350 million in the first nine months this year, up 145 percent from the period a year earlier. In the same period, Questcor’s earnings per share nearly tripled, to $2.12. In the five years after the big Acthar price increase in August 2007, Questcor shares rose from around 60 cents to about $50, in one of the best performances of any stock in any industry.
But in September, the shares plummeted after Aetna, the big insurer, said it would no longer pay for Acthar, except to treat infantile spasms, because of lack of evidence the drug worked for other diseases. The stock now trades at $26.93.
Peter Wickersham, senior vice president for cost of care at Prime Therapeutics, a pharmacy benefits manager that has found the drug is possibly being overused, says the huge increase in Acthar’s price for patients “just invites the type of scrutiny that it’s received.”