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Amid Lobbying Surge, Senate Approves Drug Alternative Bill

The Kentucky Senate passed a bill this week that would allow pharmacists to dispense cheaper versions of biologic drugs, even though no such alternatives are yet on the market.

The bill -- introduced by Sens. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, and Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington -- passed Wednesday by a 36-to-1 vote. The pharmaceuticals industry, with a record number of lobbyists registered in Frankfort, had pushed for the bill’s passage, as reported last month by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. The recent surge in drug lobbying has largely centered on this bill. (Read " Drug Company Lobbying Has Doubled In Kentucky In Recent Years")

Biologics are drugs developed from living tissue and are made for a number of conditions and diseases, like arthritis, cancer and diabetes. Because they can be very expensive, costing thousands of dollars a month, many companies are working to develop cheaper, copycat drugs generally referred to as biosimilars.

But the Kentucky bill, like bills passed in many other states, only applies to biosimilars that meet stricter federal guidelines on “interchangeability,” that is, delivering the same medical effect. As of yet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved a single interchangeable biologic drug.

The bill retains a provision requiring pharmacists to notify prescribing doctors of any switches to interchangeables within five days. The Kentucky Pharmacists Association opposed the provision, saying that the notification requirement would be burdensome enough to discourage substitutions.

“Prescriber notification requirements have shown to increase costs for the healthcare system overall because they result in more brand dispensing,” said Bob McFalls, executive director of the KPhA.

Jimmy Higdon, the Senate majority whip from Lebanon, supported the KPhA position and cast the lone opposing vote Wednesday. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.

Reporter James McNair can be reached at jmcnair@kycir.org and (502) 814.6543.

This story was reported by WFPL's Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

James McNair is a veteran investigative reporter who specializes in business and finance issues.