Progesterone for Prevention of Preterm Birth: Shortcomings and Unintended Consequences of the Orphan Drug Act
Preterm birth is a problem of major public health significance that continues to plague our country despite the existence of a therapy, 17α-hydroxyprogesterone caproate, with known efficacy in reducing the risk of spontaneous preterm birth among high-risk women. Over the past several years, the Louisiana Department of Health has undertaken a robust, multifaceted initiative to improve access to 17α-hydroxyprogesterone caproate, which resulted in a 3.5-fold increase in the percentage of eligible high-risk pregnant women in the Medicaid program who received the therapy between 2013 and 2016. Yet despite Louisiana's progress, the vast majority of the eligible population still fails to receive 17α-hydroxyprogesterone caproate. In this Current Commentary, we argue that the high price of progesterone since U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval has unnecessarily complicated access, and our nation has potentially suffered nearly 60,000 avoidable premature births as a consequence. We present the history of the orphan drug approval and manufacturer-imposed price increase for injectable progesterone, the interplay between the drug's high price and the persistence of racial and ethnic disparities in preterm birth, which are particularly germane in Louisiana, and Louisiana's broad-reaching efforts to improve progesterone coverage. The story of 17α-hydroxyprogesterone caproate highlights the durable barriers that high prices place in the way of access and helps illuminate the shortcomings and unintended consequences of the Orphan Drug Act. This case, however, is not an outlier; it is the far-too-common product of monopoly pricing in the U.S. pharmaceutical market, inadvertently bolstered by existing law, at the expense of affordability and patient access.