The Other Collusion

May 16th, 2019 by Phil Mattera

The Trump crowd may have escaped prosecution on charges of colluding with the Russians, but another case involving collusion is moving full steam ahead. Attorneys general from 43 states and Puerto Rico are pursuing a blockbuster lawsuit against the generic drug industry on charges of conspiring to artificially inflate and manipulate prices, reduce competition and unreasonably restrain trade for more than 100 different products.

Led by Connecticut Attorney General William Tong (photo), the coalition claims to have extensive evidence in the form of emails, text messages, telephone records, and statements from former company insiders documenting that 20 companies such as Teva, Sandoz and Mylan engaged in a “broad, coordinated and systematic campaign” to conspire with each other to generate prices increases that in some instances exceeded 1,000 percent.

The case, which could result in a multi-billion-dollar settlement, is a reminder that price-fixing, one of the oldest forms of corporate crime, remains a live issue. The main change is the method by which companies collude. Adam Smith’s discussion of the practice in The Wealth of Nations (1776) stated that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Now the same results can be achieved electronically, without face-to-face encounters.

Price-fixing accounts for more of the federal criminal cases in Violation Tracker than any other offense type besides environmental matters. The 212 cases have resulted in $10 billion in penalties, including more than two dozen cases in which the defendants had to pay more than $100 million.

Many of those cases involve industries such as auto parts, electronic components and chemicals; in other words, business-to-business transactions. Federal antitrust prosecutors have focused much less on goods purchased by individual consumers.

That’s where the states come in. The current case against the generic drug companies is just the latest in a string of lawsuits in which state AGs have banded together to address anti-competitive practices that affect consumers.

We’re now in the process of collecting data on those cases to add to Violation Tracker. So far, we have identified more than 100 multistate lawsuits involving price-fixing and related matters. Quite a few of these involve drug and vitamin producers.

There have even been some brought against the same generic producers targeted in the new case. For example, in 2000 Mylan agreed to pay $108 million to settle multistate allegations that it conspired with other companies to control the market for generic anti-anxiety drugs.

The past and current allegations against companies such as Teva and Mylan are especially troubling because these generic producers were supposed to be the heroes of the drug industry. Instead of acting as a check on the avaricious impulses of the brand-name producers, it appears that they jumped on the profit-maximization bandwagon. This should serve as another indicator that market forces are not up to the task of eliminating price-gouging in the pharmaceutical industry. Strong government intervention is the only remedy.

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