U.S. FTC to watch pharmacy benefits companies, drug firms

WASHINGTON, Dec 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Trade Commission plans to keep a close eye on pharmacy benefits managers - companies which manage prescription drug programs - after approving two big mergers in recent years, commissioners said during a wide ranging congressional hearing on Tuesday.

The commission, whose role is to protect fair competition, approved Express Scripts’ merger with Medco Health Solutions in 2012, with one member dissenting, after giving the green light for CVS to buy Caremark in 2007.

The combined company, now CVS Caremark has since come under fire for practices including using confidential information on Caremark patients to steer them to CVS.

Asked if the commission planned to revisit the pharmacy benefits management industry, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said, “We’re aware of the concerns and this is an area that we’re going to look at closely.”

She made the remarks at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade which focused on the FTC’s impact on jobs and the economy.

Commissioner Julie Brill, who like Ramirez is a Democrat, said that she felt the pharmaceutical benefits market was concentrated enough to warrant keeping a close eye on it.

In the past, Brill said, “I saw some evidence of coordination and I worry a great deal about coordination in this market.”

Maureen Ohlhausen, a Republican commissioner at the agency, said the commission would be interested in factors like whether prices went up or selection went down after the deals were consummated.

She said any problems would be slow to show up since companies’ contracts with pharmacy benefits managers tended to be long term.

“It might take a little while” for trends to emerge, Ohlhausen told reporters after the hearing.

The fourth commissioner, Republican Josh Wright, declined to comment on the issue.

President Barack Obama has nominated a fifth commissioner, Democrat Terrell McSweeny. Her nomination was advanced by a Senate panel in November but has yet to be considered by the full Senate.