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Unlikely political allies take on drugmakers’ patent tactics

An unusual bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is teaming up on drug pricing legislation, proving the issue may defy election-year partisanship as health care costs remain a top voter concern.

Why it matters: The effort highlights the increased scrutiny some influential Republicans are giving an industry the GOP has long allied itself with.

Driving the news: Some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress and the House GOP's lead budget writer are backing a plan to keep drugmakers from gaming the patent system.

  • Their legislation targets "patent thickets" — the practice of taking out overlapping patents around one drug that the bill's sponsors say drug companies use to fend off competition.

  • The involvement of Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas), chair of the House Budget Committee, has raised some eyebrows in the pharmaceutical industry and highlights the continued pressure on the sector even after Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

  • Arrington joked to Axios that teaming up with a liberal like Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) means "we're either about to have transformational change that is desperately needed, or you should be looking over the horizon for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

  • A related bipartisan measure in the Senate from Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also takes aim at patent gaming.

Zoom in: Patent thickets are among the strategies that drugmakers have been accused of deploying to delay the introduction of cheaper generics or copycats of complex biologic drugs.

  • So-called "pay-for-delay" deals, in which branded drug companies pay generic makers to keep their products from the market, and drugmakers' improper listing of patents in a federal registry have also faced bipartisan scrutiny.

Yes, but: Republicans are still broadly aligned with drugmakers on opposing Medicare drug price negotiations and the Biden administration's recent proposal to seize patents of high-priced drugs developed with taxpayer support, which the industry argues will undermine research and development.

  • Arrington acknowledged that his new effort had made the pharmaceutical industry "nervous" but said he is focused on patent system abuses, not on stopping innovation.

  • "It is an anti-fraud [bill]," he said. "It's to prevent the defrauding of the [intellectual property] system and fleecing the taxpayers and patients as a result."

The other side: Overcoming pharmaceutical industry opposition is still a major hurdle for the measure.

  • "Attacking innovation and myopically focusing on the number of patents a medicine has won't help lower costs for patients," said Megan Van Etten, a spokesperson for the drug industry trade group PhRMA.

What's next: Although some notable Republicans support these measures, it remains to be seen whether GOP leadership will agree to include them in any must-pass legislation this year.

  • Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a lead sponsor of the Senate patent measure, said the backing of some prominent conservatives is "hopeful."

  • Drug companies "just want to block competition," Welch said. "We're fed up with it, and you're seeing liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans [say] 'Enough.'"


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