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Pricing and reimbursement of orphan drugs: the need for more transparency

Steven Simoens

Author Affiliations

Research Centre for Pharmaceutical Care and Pharmaco-economics, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, O&N2 bus 521, Herestraat 49, 3000 Leuven, Belgium

Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases 2011, 6:42  doi:10.1186/1750-1172-6-42

Published: 17 June 2011


Pricing and reimbursement of orphan drugs are an issue of high priority for policy makers, legislators, health care professionals, industry leaders, academics and patients. This study aims to conduct a literature review to provide insight into the drivers of orphan drug pricing and reimbursement.

Although orphan drug pricing follows the same economic logic as drug pricing in general, the monopolistic power of orphan drugs results in high prices: a) orphan drugs benefit from a period of marketing exclusivity; b) few alternative health technologies are available; c) third-party payers and patients have limited negotiating power; d) manufacturers attempt to maximise orphan drug prices within the constraints of domestic pricing and reimbursement policies; and e) substantial R&D costs need to be recouped from a small number of patients.

Although these conditions apply to some orphan drugs, they do not apply to all orphan drugs. Indeed, the small number of patients treated with an orphan drug and the limited economic viability of orphan drugs can be questioned in a number of cases. Additionally, manufacturers have an incentive to game the system by artificially creating monopolistic market conditions.

Given their high price for an often modest effectiveness, orphan drugs are unlikely to provide value for money. However, additional criteria are used to inform reimbursement decisions in some countries. These criteria may include: the seriousness of the disease; the availability of other therapies to treat the disease; and the cost to the patient if the medicine is not reimbursed. Therefore, the maximum cost per unit of outcome that a health care payer is willing to pay for a drug could be set higher for orphan drugs to which society attaches a high social value.

There is a need for a transparent and evidence-based approach towards orphan drug pricing and reimbursement. Such an approach should be targeted at demonstrating the relative effectiveness, cost-effectiveness and economic viability of orphan drugs with a view to informing pricing and reimbursement decisions.