The headquarters of Amgen, the world's largest biotechnology firm, in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Jan. 16, 2013. A provision buried in the fiscal bill passed earlier this month gives Amgen two more years to sell a lucrative kidney dialysis drug without government price restraints.

Monica Almeida, Nyt - Nyt

Break for biotech giant tacked onto fiscal cliff bill

  • Article by: ERIC LIPTON and KEVIN SACK
  • New York Times
  • January 19, 2013 - 10:47 PM


WASHINGTON - Just two weeks after pleading guilty in a major federal fraud case, Amgen, the world's largest biotechnology firm, scored a largely unnoticed coup on Capitol Hill: Lawmakers inserted a paragraph into the "fiscal cliff" bill that strongly favored one of its drugs.

The language buried in Section 632 of the law delays a set of Medicare price restraints on a class of drugs that includes Sensipar, a lucrative Amgen pill used by kidney dialysis patients. The provision gives Amgen an additional two years to sell Sensipar without government controls. The news was so welcome that the company's chief executive quickly relayed it to investment analysts. But it is projected to cost Medicare, and thus taxpayers, up to $500 million over that period.

Supporters of the delay, primarily leaders of the Senate Finance Committee who have long benefited from Amgen's political largesse, said it was necessary to allow federal regulators to properly prepare for the pricing change. But critics, including several congressional aides, depicted the delay as an unnecessary giveaway.

"That is why we are in the trouble we are in," said Dennis Cotter, a health policy researcher who studies the cost and efficacy of dialysis drugs. "Everybody is carving out their own turf and getting it protected, and we pass the bill on to the taxpayer."

The provision's inclusion in the fiscal cliff legislation shows the enduring power of special interests in Washington.

Amgen has deep financial and political ties to lawmakers, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who hold heavy sway over Medicare payment policy as the leaders of the Finance Committee.

Aides to Hatch and Baucus and a spokeswoman for Amgen said the delay would give the Medicare system and medical providers the time they needed to accommodate other complicated changes in how federal reimbursements for kidney care were determined.

The goal, an Amgen spokeswoman said in a written statement, is "to ensure that quality of care is not compromised for dialysis patients."

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