Lawmakers Debate Generics

Feb 19, 2013

Virginia could become the first state in the nation to restrict a new class of generic medications.  But drug companies want limits and some pharmacists are concerned.

Amgen is the world’s largest biotech company – a California firm that makes medicines from living cells.  These remedies, known as biologicals, are expensive and protected by patents, but the Affordable Care Act clears the way for cheaper, generic forms of these products.  

John O’Bannon serves in Virginia’s House of Delegates, representing parts of Richmond and Henrico County.  He recently got a call from Amgen, asking for help in crafting a bill that would restrict the prescription of generic biologicals.   

Now O’Bannon isn’t your ordinary politician. “I’m your brain doctor.  I’m a neurologist.”

"Some of our seizure patients had problems with generics, and over time I think generics have gotten better and we're more comfortable with them," says Dr. O'Bannon.

But he’s not yet comfortable with the idea of generic biologicals.  “They’re going to be similar.  They’ll be FDA approved, but they’re not identical.”

So he sponsored a bill that would allow doctors or patients to insist on brand name drugs instead – making it illegal for pharmacists to dispense the cheaper medications.  The president of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, Ralph Neas, thinks that’s a terrible idea.

"Generics have saved this country a trillion dollars according to published reports in the last decade, about $200 billion in 2011 alone. We expect that biosimilars will do the same thing," said Neas.

The bill also requires drug stores to notify doctors  and patients if they dispense a generic biological, and keep records of doing so for two years.  Pharmacists have told the Virginia legislature that O’Bannon’s bill will make their jobs much more difficult.

"You know the CVS guy  says we're going to have to get a whole new computer system to do this, I just don’t buy that," said O'Bannon.

His bill also requires pharmacies to say, on the label, when a generic biological was used as a substitute for the brand name drug.  Three trade associations representing pharmacists think that will only confuse consumers.  

Federal law does not require Amgen’s Political Action Committee to report campaign contributions to state candidates, but O’Bannon admits he’s taken money from the pharmaceutical industry.

"I, yes, and I have gotten, and that’s listed.  I have fundraisers and I've gotten money from the folks that are pushing this and the folks who are agin’ it," he said.

Both the House and Senate have now approved the bill in Richmond, and the Governor is expected to sign it into law.