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Two days after Aetna Inc. filed an antitrust class action against Abbott Laboratories for hiking the price of one of its AIDS drugs, the insurance company backed down. Aetna wouldn’t say Thursday why it opted to drop the suit, but the decision apparently took its attorneys by surprise. Earlier in the day, Aetna attorney Joseph Tabacco Jr., a partner at Berman DeValerio Pease Tabacco Burt & Pucillo, said a recent 478 percent increase in the price of Norvir hurt both the people who need the drug and the insurance companies that pay for it. A few hours later, Aetna announced it was voluntarily dismissing the suit without prejudice. “Aetna intends to discuss with Abbott the basis for its repricing action,” the company said in a statement. Tabacco said he could not comment on the decision beyond Aetna’s press release. Abbott increased the price of Norvir in December, eight years after it went on the market. The move outraged consumer and AIDS organizations, which have lobbied Congress and the government to force Abbott to roll back the price. Aetna’s suit brought the insurance industry into the fray — at least momentarily. In its complaint, filed in San Francisco federal court Tuesday, Aetna claimed Abbott had violated antitrust laws by abusing its monopoly power to hike the price of Norvir. Norvir is a component of virtually every protease inhibitor, a class of drugs that blocks the enzyme necessary for HIV reproduction. Norvir increases the effectiveness of these drugs. Aetna said in its complaint that while Abbott’s competitors have had to increase the price of their protease inhibitors, Abbott has kept the cost of its own PI, Kaletra, constant. “Abbott is trying to use its monopoly to keep out competitors,” Tabacco said. Without its monopoly, “it couldn’t make the price stick.” Although Aetna has left the ring, Tabacco is still pursuing the pharmaceutical giant. He represents consumers in a separate class action against Abbott. That pending complaint, which he said is essentially identical, was filed in San Francisco federal court in April. The two suits contend that Abbott boosted the price of Norvir to make up for losing market share to new PIs. “Barely five weeks after the release of GlaxoSmithKline’s Lexiva, and more than seven years after Norvir’s introduction into the market, Abbott abruptly announced that it was raising the wholesale price of Norvir from $205.74 to $1,028.71 for 120 100 mg. capsules,” the Aetna complaint says. “In a coup de grace against competitors’ PIs, Abbott did not raise the price of Norvir used in its own Kaletra. As a result, Kaletra became the least expensive boosted regimen on the market.” Abbott President and Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Leiden said at a public meeting Tuesday that Kaletra has not benefited from the increased price of Norvir. Norvir “remains the lowest priced drug in its class at its most common dose and remains the lowest cost component of a typical HIV regimen,” said Leiden at a meeting of the National Institutes of Health. The nonprofit group Essential Inventions asked the Department of Health and Human Services to require Abbott to license Norvir to its competitors on “reasonable terms.” The group argues that the government has the right to do so under the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, since NIH provided Abbott $3.4 million in funding for its early research on Norvir. Prescription Access Litigation, a coalition of consumer groups, also filed a class action against Abbott in Illinois state court this month.

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