Amgen Inc.’s uphill climb to reverse restrictive coverage policies for darbepoetin (Aranesp) just got a little steeper.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ position that it will not pay for use of Aranesp or Johnson & Johnson’s competing EPO brand epoetin (Procrit) in patients with hemoglobin levels above 10 g/dL “is generally consistent with the available data and the published scientific literature.” So says the Food & Drug Administration in a letter sent to two prominent House Democrats: Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ways & Means/Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-Calif.).
The letter, signed by acting Assistant Commissioner for Legislation Stephen Mason, gives CMS a vote of support the agency desperately wanted. It looks like CMS is making its position stick—and that is a development that should matter to companies across the industry, not just Amgen and J&J. (Why? We have written extensively about that in The RPM Report—including this article just going to press. Not a subscriber? Click here to register for a free trial and check out our coverage.)
FDA’s letter ends any lingering hopes for a quick reversal of the coverage policy, despite an all-out campaign by Amgen and J&J to enlist support in Congress. Amgen seemed to have gained a lot of traction on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate, where a non-binding resolution urging CMS to reconsider the policy passed at the start of September, and where many Hill watchers expected a binding resolution to be included in a Medicare bill this year.
But one of the critical arguments underpinning the Senate legislation has been the contention that CMS’ policy is consistent with the FDA approved directions for use for EPO. As currently written, FDA’s label says EPO should be used to maintain hemoglobin levels at the lowest level sufficient to avoid the need for transfusions, and not be used once hemoglobin rises above 12 g/dL. Amgen, J&J, and a whole bunch of oncologists think that means CMS’ policy—refusing to pay for use above 10—is inconsistent with the labeling.
CMS has stuck by its position despite the political pressure. But no one knew for sure what FDA thought or what it would say when it finalizes new labeling for the drugs to reflect advice from two advisory committees convened in May and September. (Here is our recap of the situation, including a nifty picture of Commissioner von Eschenbach holding the PDR.)
So Waxman and Stark asked. FDA still hasn’t finalized the labeling, but it did answer the critical question. “The current labeling advises that the hemoglobin not exceed 12 g/dL,” Mason wrote. “FDA considers this to be an upper safety limit for ESA dosing, not a target for therapy. FDA is aware that there has been some confusion about the dosing recommendations in the current approved labeling and will work to clarify that confusion as we complete labeling changes that we are currently discussing with Amgen.” (Amgen is the license holder for both Aranesp and Procrit, so J&J is not directly involved in the labeling discussions.)
“Transfusions are not normally given to patients whose hemoglobin is 10 g/dL or higher,” FDA said. So I guess we know what the new labeling will say--not that it matters anymore, since FDA's letter of support is far more important to the future of the anemia therapies than anything the labeling ultimately says.
Oh, and FDA didn’t stop there. “There is no evidence that ESAs result in improved survival, tumor control, health-related quality of life at any hemoglobin level in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy,” the agency wrote. “ESAs were approved based on their effectiveness in reducing the need for red blood cell transfusions.”
Don’t expect Amgen to take that answer lying down. But the company has an even tougher road ahead if it hopes to change CMS' mind.