The Supremes Strike a Blow for Health Care Affordability

Today’s Managing Health Care Costs Indicator is $3000

All eyes are on the Supreme Court’s six hours of oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act this week – but we shouldn’t lose sight of a hugely important decision last week to limit the ability of biotechnology companies to patent “natural laws.”

The Supreme Court last week ruled that Prometheus Pharmaceuticals could not patent a test that suggests medication dose changes based on amount of metabolites in the patient’s blood.  Mayo Clinic had developed a similar test – with its own validated normal range, but Prometheus sued to stop Mayo from marketing its test.   Now there can be competition in this field, which is likely to lead to more innovation and lower price.  

This has led the Supreme Court to ask an appeals court to review its earlier finding that Myriad Pharmaceuticals and the University of Utah could continue to be the sole owners of a patent  for BRCA 1 and 2 – the genes that are associated with heightened risk of breast and ovarian cancer, especially among Ashkenazi Jews.  The  genetic test for these genes now costs $3000 – and many insurers are reluctant to provide coverage.

Advocates periodically assert that “personalized medicine” can improve quality and outcomes while lowering overall resource costs, and point to tests that can protect patients from drugs that would offer them no benefits, and help determine the best dose based on genes rather than trial and error.  There is no question that genetic testing is already saving and improving lives.   The current high expense of genetic tests makes it unlikely we can achieve the goal of cost savings  - and single source manufacturers would fight hard to maintain high “brand name” prices.  These Supreme Court decisions can inject competition in the biotechnology market,  offering the prospect of price relief in the all-important market of genetic tests and gene therapies.