High Value Health Care

When patients feel the pain of high drug prices, the Patent Office should take notice

3 people speaking at a panel
Simon Tam | Used by permission
Patricia Kelmar, PIRG's senior director of health care campaigns (in red) at US Patent and Trademark Office

Wondering what prescription drug prices have to do with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO)? When scientists discover a new medical treatment, drug companies file for patents for those innovations. If the patent is approved, no other company can sell a generic or biosimilar version of that drug for 20 years. And without competition, the brand name companies can set any price for the new drug, and keep raising it through those two decades. Evidence shows that drug companies get as many patents as they can on each drug, and keep filing for new patents on existing drugs as a strategy to keep prices high. We’ve explained the trickery in our report, The Cost of Prescription Drug Patent Abuse.  

That’s why PIRG believes the PTO should start to consider the larger impact the agency has on the general public and give people a way to be heard.

PIRG’s senior director of health care campaigns, Patricia Kelmar, recently spoke on a PTO panel during its first Public Engagement Partnership meeting. She described the challenge that patients face when they can’t afford a brand name drug and there isn’t a lower cost generic or biosimilar option on the pharmacy shelves. She explained how patent-gaming allows some drug companies to extend patents well beyond the 20 years of the original patent. She urged the PTO to find ways for the public to demand that drugs wrapped in questionably weak patents be re-examined by the agency so competition can resume to bring down drug prices.

PIRG will continue to engage with the PTO and will be inviting the public to get involved in the next meeting this summer.

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