Why drug companies need to go from reactive to proactive on pricing

The media world is still buzzing about Turing Pharmaceuticals and its controversial CEO, Martin Shkreli, making the already tricky world of drug pricing even more delicate.

After Turing said this fall that it would hike the price of its anti-parasite drug Daraprim by 4,000%, the company has backtracked a bit, claiming it will allow a price cut for hospitals, physicians, and government-run programs.

Nancy Retzlaff, the company's chief commercial officer, said in a statement that "drug pricing is one of the most complex parts of the healthcare industry. A drug's list price is not the primary factor determining patient affordability and access."

Yet healthcare comms experts said the onus is on pharma companies to get out in front of the story. Jonathan Wilson, president of Spectrum Science Communications, said he would counsel a client to start the drug-pricing conversation quickly, then keep it going.  

"It's about building that value context, and doing that early, in terms of framing the story," he explained.

Wilson added that companies work hard to ensure patients can get the drugs they need, but falter when "communicating the thing that they do."  

Shkreli has become the poster boy for drug companies putting high price tags on their products since September when his company, Turing, boosted the price of Daraprim to $750 a pill from $13.50 after buying the rights to it. He was criticized by public figures ranging from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump for doing so.

However, Express Scripts said in the past week it will partner with Imprimis Pharmaceuticals to cut the price of a compounded formulation of the drug, which is used to help HIV patients and others with weakened immune systems, for a small fraction of that price.

Jill Dosik, global president of scientific communications and messaging impact at GCI Health, said a recent audit at a client's request revealed a consistency of companies being reactive when it comes to drug pricing.  

"There's little proactive communications in this space," she said.

When it comes to improving on that record, Wilson said, "It's about setting a context."

For instance, he pointed to the evolution of treating hepatitis C, noting there's innovation in that area, but not enough conversation about how it is saving money when applied to treatment and hospitalization.

This story originally appeared in PRWeek