The Interchangability Blues

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  • 04/25/2013

From today’s edition of the South Florida Sun Sentinel

Low costs medicines could jeopardize patient health

In Florida's House and Senate, lawmakers are currently working on legislation that would enable patients to purchase lower-cost alternatives to some of today's most-advanced medicines.

Unfortunately, a recent amendment to the legislation undermines the physican-patient relationship. It's critical for lawmakers to revert to their original proposal.

The legislation under consideration deals with a new class of medicines known as "biologics."

Unlike conventional drugs, which are made using basic chemical reactions, biologics are actually grown using living organisms. So they're much more complex. Consequently, when the patent on a biologic expires, competitors aren't able to make exact copies. But they can come close — so imitation biologics are called "biosimilars" instead of "generics."

Under federal law, the Food and Drug Administration will soon begin approving biosimilars. But the agency doesn't plan to issue any product-specific guidance to physicians or pharmacists prior to approving these drugs. And, it's not within the FDA's jurisdiction to tell states how to address the substitution of interchangeable biosimilars at the pharmacy — that responsibility falls to the state.

When Florida lawmakers in both chambers started work on their bills, they were model pieces of legislation — striking a balance between ensuring patient safety, and creating open access for more affordable new treatments.

The original bills stipulated Florida pharmacists would only be allowed to substitute a biosimilar for its brand counterpart if the FDA had certified the medicine as interchangeable with the innovator biologic.

The human body is complicated, of course, so it's possible that some biosimilars — even those deemed interchangeable by the FDA — will not work properly for certain patients, and because of the interaction of these treatments with a patient's immune system serious consequences can result.

The original legislation also required pharmacists to notify patients if a substitution had been made. And, because adverse reactions may not manifest themselves immediately, the bill also asked pharmacists to maintain dispensing records for four years. In the event that a biologic or biosimilar does not provide the intended treatment outcome, such records will prove vital.

Finally, and most importantly, the bill required pharmacists to notify prescribing physicians within ten days if a substitution had been made. It's important to underscore that this notification is required after the patient has already received the biosimilar.

These are all commonsense ssafeguards. They ensure that patients can access these less expensive new modifications safely.

But over the past week, House and Senate lawmakers have stripped the physician notification  from their bill. This doesn't make sense — it ignores the most fundamental aspect of protecting the patient by cutting doctors out of the loop.

This change undermines patient safety. Biologics are incredibly complex — on average, they contain 1,000 times the number of atoms found in conventional chemical drugs. Doctors, especially those treating patients with multiple chronic or autoimmune conditions, need to know when their patients walk away from the pharmacy counter with a different medicine than the one they prescribed.

This change also undercuts physician autonomy and ignores the importance of transparency. In order to effectively treat their patients and protect against unintended health effects, doctors have the right to know if a substitution is made.

In both the House and the Senate, the earlier draft of the bill puts patients first. As lawmakers finalize this measure, it's critical that they fulfill their responsibility to keep patients at the cent of this debate, and to make sure that the legislation passes with all protections intact.

Peter J. Pitts, a former FDA Associate Commissioner, is the president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.



Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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