Fiscal cliff bill benefits biotech company Amgen

WASHINGTON — Just two weeks after pleading guilty in a major federal fraud case, Amgen, the world’s largest biotech company, scored a largely unnoticed coup on Capitol Hill: Lawmakers inserted a paragraph into the fiscal cliff bill that did not mention the company by name but strongly ­favored one of its drugs.

The language buried in Section 632 of the law delays a set of Medicare price restraints on a class of drugs that includes Sensipar, an Amgen pill used by kidney dialysis patients.

The provision gives Amgen an additional two years to sell Sensipar without government controls. The news was so welcome that Amgen’s chief executive quickly relayed it to investment analysts. But it is projected to cost Medicare up to $500 million over that period.


Amgen, which has 74 lobbyists in the capital, was the only company to argue aggressively for the delay, according to several congressional aides of both parties. Supporters of the delay, primarily leaders of the Senate Finance Committee who have benefited from Amgen’s political largess, said it was necessary to allow regulators to properly prepare for the pricing change.

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But critics, including several congressional aides, pointed out that Amgen had already won a previous two-year delay, and they depicted a second one as an unnecessary giveaway.

‘‘That is why we are in the trouble we are in,’’ said Dennis J. Cotter, a health policy researcher who studies the cost and efficacy of dialysis drugs.

The provision’s inclusion in the legislation to avert the tax increases and spending cuts demonstrates the enduring power of special interests in Washington.

Amgen has deep financial and political ties to lawmakers like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, and Senators Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, and Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, who hold heavy sway over Medicare payment policy as the leaders of the Finance Committee.


Aides to Hatch and Baucus, and a spokeswoman for Amgen, said the delay would give the Medicare system and medical providers the time they needed to accommodate other complicated changes in how federal reimbursements for kidney care were determined.

‘‘Sometimes when you try to do too much and too quickly, you screw up,’’ said Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Hatch. The goal, an Amgen spokeswoman said, is ‘‘to ensure that quality of care is not compromised for dialysis patients.’’

But the measure runs counter to a five-year effort in Washington to control the enormous expense of dialysis for the Medicare program.

Amgen’s success also shows that even a significant federal criminal investigation may pose little threat to a company’s influence. On Dec. 19, Amgen pleaded guilty to illegally marketing one of its anti-anemia drugs, Aranesp.

It agreed to pay criminal and civil penalties totaling $762 million, according to the Justice Department.


Amgen is headquartered near Los Angeles and has facilities in Cambridge, Mass., and West Greenwich, R.I.