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Abbott defends AIDS drug price
  By Bruce Japsen
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 23, 2004, 3:03 PM CDT
Abbott Laboratories today defended pricing of its HIV medicines before religious groups and AIDS activists at the North Chicago drug company's annual shareholders meeting.
In the U.S., Abbott raised the price of its HIV treatment Norvir by 400 percent in December to $8.57 a day from $1.75 a day. AIDS activists say the cost threatens patients' access to Norvir.
About 40 protestors representing AIDS groups and other consumer activists waved signs across the street from Abbott's sprawling Lake County headquarters. Several representatives of the groups pleaded their case inside before 2,000 shareholders.
But Abbott said it knows of no patients that have been unable to get access to Norvir and explained its pricing methodology in detail. Abbott's explanations were greeted with shareholder applause.
"We care very much about the patients we serve," said Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, president and chief operating officer of Abbott's pharmaceutical products group. "Unfortunately, what has gotten lost are the steps we have taken."
About the time of the price increase, Abbott said the company froze the prices it charges government programs like Medicaid health insurance for the poor, which accounts for 54 percent of Norvir patients.
Further, Abbott said it provides financial assistance, including free drugs to patients without health insurance. About 4 percent of Norvir patients are uninsured.
And for those patients with coverage, Abbott said it knows of no commercial health insurers who have stopped covering Norvir. The company said 42 percent of Norvir patients have private insurance.
Although Norvir is an older drug, it is being used as a booster treatment. Other AIDS medicines wouldn't be as effective without it, studies by both Abbott and rival drug makers indicate. Norvir also remains priced several times lower than all other rival protease inhibitors.
Leiden and Abbott chief executive Miles White said the company has long been a leader in providing low-cost AIDS medicines in the U.S. as well as to poor countries overseas.
Yet a consortium of religious investors claimed Abbott and other drug-makers weren't doing enough.
Groups led by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility failed to win shareholder approval of a resolution that asked the company to assess how much the epidemic impacts Abbott's business. That would give the groups an idea of whether Abbott is doing enough abroad for poor nations.
Te resolution won 8 percent support among shareholders, which allows the organization to bring it back before the company again next year.
White said Abbott alone is spending more than $225 million last year in free and discounted AIDS medicines as well as medical training to communities in underdeveloped countries.
"I'll never feel like it is enough, and I don't know what enough is," White said. "We're not lagging."
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