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Pharma's Premium Pricing Power

Cost of healthcare
Lilli Day | Photodisc | Getty Images
Cost of healthcare

I just got back from the annual meeting of the Generic Pharmaceutical Associationwhose timely tagline is "Improving lives for less."

Meanwhile, big pharmaceutical companies have been raising prices on a lot of drugs recently. Some critics say the industry's trying to cash in before government price controls possibly get put into place. Analysts say the firms are propping up their toplines in the face of increased generic competition and a lack of fast-growing, popular new drugs. For example, Lilly actually acknowledged in its most recent earnings releasethat a 12 percent rise in sales of Cialis was "driven primarily by higher prices."

But there are two new examples of the industry's emboldened attitude about charging a premium. Granted, neither drug has been officially launched yet, so it isn't clear yet how much, if any, pushback there will be. But I think it does say something that even in the current political and economic environment at least a couple of companies are not ashamed to aim high.

Yesterday, Auxilium announced it's going to charge $3,250 per vial of its newly approved drug Xiaflex for a disease that causes fingers to curl.

The company, in partnership with Pfizer , is also developing the drug to treat a condition that causes curvature of the penis. And, yes, I'm aware that makes two references in one blog to genital-related drugs. Anyway, in a research note to clients Jefferies analyst Thomas Wei said the Xiaflex price is 117 percent higher than what had been the Street consensus on where it would come in and 160 percent above his estimate. AUXL did say that it expects fewer doses to be used in practice than had been used in clinical trials, so maybe that's why the cost is higher than expected. But Leerink Swann analyst Joseph Schwartz says more doses will be needed to treat the penis problem than the finer problem. "Biggest positive, in our view, is the impact of higher Xiaflex vial pricing on the Peyronie's (penis curvature) disease opportunity," Schwartz wrote. LS and Jefferies make a market in AUXL. Jefferies was also the sole bookrunner on an equity offering last September.

And a couple of weeks ago Acorda Therapeutics announced that it'll charge nearly $13,000 a year for its new drug, Ampyra, which helps some multiple sclerosis patients walk better and faster.

That's almost twice the amount many analysts thought the company would charge for the twice-a-day pill.

At a recent biotech conference one analyst expressed skepticism about the pricing, suggesting it was all part of an internal mathematical equation to try to turn Ampyra into a blockbuster product.

Acorda shares, by the way, have nearly doubled over the past four months.

You can hear the ACOR CEO's rationale in this interview.

Next week is President Obama's health care summit. I'm thinking it's entirely possible that reform proponents could use these two fresh examples as whipping boys. And the companies, despite whether you believe they're simply trying to recoup their investment and are charging what the market will bear, may have set themselves up for it.

Questions? Comments? Pharma@cnbc.com and follow me on Twitter at mhuckman