- Alkermes plc defended its promotional and educational strategies for Vivitrol in a Wednesday response to a congresswoman's request for information about the opioid dependence drug.
- Of particular interest to Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, who penned a letter to Alkermes CEO Richard Pops earlier this week, was the level of promotional activity geared toward judges, legislators and law enforcement agents — which in turn helped prop up Vivitrol sales, according to reports.
- In his response letter, Pops acknowledged that while his company does devote educational resources to drug courts and criminal justice professionals, it primarily deals with physicians and other healthcare personnel. "We interact with these stakeholders because they are critical members of the treatment ecosystem, many of whom are seeking information on Vivitrol and evolving practices in the treatment of opioid dependence," he said.
The U.S. healthcare system is at a tipping point in dealing with an opioid epidemic that has no end in sight. More than 33,000 people throughout the country died in 2015 as a result of opioid abuse, many of them from prescription painkiller overdoses. Aside from lives, estimates hold the epidemic is costing nearly $80 billion.
"The severity of this crisis makes effective opioid addition treatment an important priority, and it is crucial that treatment approaches rest on sound science and the best judgment of medical professionals — not the marketing and lobbying prowess of the pharmaceutical industry," Harris wrote in her Nov. 6 letter to Alkermes.
Drugmakers have faced a great deal of backlash over the roll they played in fueling the opioid crisis. The pile of litigation against manufacturers such as Endo Pharmaceuticals plc and Purdue Pharmaceuticals continues to mount.
Congress has also been a sharp critic of the industry. Earlier this year, for instance, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee launched a probe aimed at gathering more information from five makers of opioids about, among other things, the marketing protocols and the risk for abuse of their products.
"This epidemic is the direct result of a calculated sales and marketing strategy major opioid manufacturers have allegedly pursued over the past 20 years to expand their market share and increase dependency on powerful — and often deadly — painkillers," McCaskill wrote in a letter to the companies.
As for Alkermes, the company has agreed to cooperate with Harris' request. The congresswoman is looking for more information about Alkermes' sales reps — their job assignments, and what judges and drug courts they were directed to — the jails and prisons that received free Vivitrol shots for inmates, as well as quotes for any money paid to patient-focused organizations such as the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence.
Harris also noted concerns that Alkermes' marketing efforts for Vivitrol may have disadvantaged pickup of other, less expensive options.
"Every patient deserves access to all medications to treat opioid dependence, and we work with government agencies and elected officials to provide information in support of such access," Pops wrote.
"We know firsthand the stories of patients whose lives have been saved by methadone, buprenorphine and Vivitrol. The question cannot and should not be which one is better. The question is: which treatment for opioid addiction is right for me or my loved one at this moment in time in the course of a vicious, deadly disease, and can I get timely access to treatment."
First approved in 2006, Vivitrol brought in $194 million for Alkermes during the first nine months of 2017.