Is Menendez's Republican challenger even more ethically challenged? | Editorial

Posted Mar 4, 2018

Bob Hugin announcing he's running for U.S. Senate as a Republican, challenging U.S. Robert Menendez, at the Springfield Elks Lodge in Springfield , NJ.


Bob Hugin, an ex-pharma executive, is attacking Sen. Robert Menendez on ethical grounds, as he should. New Jersey deserves better than Menendez, as he says.
But is Hugin, who is seeking the GOP nomination to face Menendez, the man to point the finger on ethics?

His stewardship of Celgene, the big pharmaceutical firm based in Summit, raises serious doubts.

It was under Hugin's leadership, after all, that Celgene waged a multi-year battle against legislative efforts to lower drug prices for the federal government and cancer patients.
Not only did Celgene hike the price of its blockbuster anti-cancer drug, Revlimid, aggressively; it fought to protect its monopoly at all costs.
The tactics it used were denounced by Scott Gottlieb, head of the federal agency that regulates drugmakers - and a former big pharma board member himself - as "shenanigans" that are "unfair and exploitative." 
To be sure, Celgene wasn't the only bad actor. But companies that make cheaper generic versions of drugs say Celgene was a pioneer in this regard and has one of the best-known records of abuse.
Here's how it gamed the system: Once a patent on a drug expires, generic drug companies are supposed to be free to produce their own versions of the drug, driving down prices. To do that, the generic firms need to start cracking the code on a drug early. They usually start by buying a sample from the brand-name company for research. 
But competitors say Celgene refused to sell samples of Revlimid, citing bogus safety concerns - essentially, that highly trained scientific teams in generics labs wouldn't be able to handle its drug properly; that some pregnant technician might swallow it without a prescription, for instance.
Silly as that sounds, it's enough to prevent a competitor from getting a sample, proving to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that its version is identical to the original drug, and getting that cheaper alternative certified for market. A generics company can't just cop a pill from a doctor or patient; it has to prove that it was obtained from the brand-name company.
As generic firms and consumer groups have pressed for reforms to expedite this process, Celgene has also done all it can to scuttle them. Last year, with Hugin as its CEO, it spent $2.8 million on lobbying - its most ever - on efforts like blocking a bill that would have helped end these "shenanigans," and sped up a cheaper version of Revlimid.
As a result, Revlimid now provides as much as two-thirds of Celgene's total revenue, and is the seventh costliest drug for taxpayers under Medicare.
All of which is why David Mitchell, a cancer patient who launched a class action lawsuit against Celgene, declares that "Bob Hugin used cancer patients and Medicare patients like a piggy bank." 
Hugin earned himself $100 million in just three years, Mitchell says, thanks to this profitable misbehavior.  
Hugin's campaign advisor, Chris Russell, denies any abuse, saying Celgene "consistently offers and has sold samples." A Celgene spokesman said it makes drug samples available to generic manufacturers "subject to reasonable safety-related requirements."
Here's what we know for certain: Celgene is currently being sued by one of the biggest generic drugmakers, Mylan, over its refusal to share samples of Revlimid, even after the FDA found Mylan's safety measures adequate. 
And the Federal Trade Commission, which investigates antitrust and consumer protection violations, also called out Celgene's bad behavior. 
"Celgene's view that it has a virtually absolute right to block access to the samples generic firms need to compete threatens to foreclose these cheaper alternatives, perhaps indefinitely," it said. 
When asked about this credible charge, Hugin's campaign had no answers. 
A top saleswoman at Celgene also filed a whistleblower lawsuitaccusing the drugmaker of putting cancer patients in danger by hiding information about potentially fatal side effects. Celgene didn't contest those charges in court; it settled for an eye-popping $280 million. 
So, yes, New Jersey needs an ethical alternative to Bob Menendez. But is that leader really Bob Hugin?

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