NEW YORK – New York Times medical reporter Gina Kolata has heard it all while working the often heart-rending beat of writing about drugs, patients and the process of creating medicines, but she never heard from the founder of a company who offered to help patients who couldn’t afford a prescription his business made.
Dr. George D. Yancopoulos, also the Chief Scientific Officer of Sanofi-Regeneron and his partner and co-founder Dr. Leonard S. Schleifer, who is also its CEO, reached out to her after reading about two patients, Mackenzie Ames and Rodney Scheidel, who had very high levels of LDL cholesterol (the dangerous kind) and were at high risk for heart attacks.
Scheidel had already had a heart attack and they needed drugs, known as PCSK9 inhibitors but their insurers had denied them coverage. It’s the kind of woeful story the reporter knew well, the battle between insurers who want low prices for drugs and drug companies who spend billions in research and need to make a profit so they can keep making drugs.
After her story on the two patient’s plight she said she got an email from Yancopoulos – who had a personal stake in the same dilemma – and from Schleifer, expressing compassion and a wish to help.
“If you can, please put Mackenzie and Rodney in touch with us, and we will try and help them get covered, or we can arrange to give them the drug for free.” They added: “While we can’t give everyone free drug, we can help Mackenzie and Rodney, especially as they had the courage to step forward and share their experiences,” the email said.
Yancopoulos later provided his personal phone number, asking her to give it to the two patients to speed the process of helping because their insurers didn’t want to pay for the drug his company made.
She said she called him the next day and, in an hour-long conversation, passionately defended Regeneron and what it does and then said he also had a similar problem buying the drug his company makes – he has to pay for it.
The two executives, both holding M.D. and Ph.D degrees as physicians and scientists, foundered Regeneron in 1988 inspired, Yancopoulos said, by family members with debilitating diseases and their own experience treating patients with such diseases. Dr. Schleifer gave the company its motto: “Doing well by doing good.”
Twenty years later, Regeneron got its first drug approved. Five years after that, Regeneron finally made a profit but Yancopoulos said during the tough years that, “Len and I were literally mocked. Analysts said, ‘This is what you get when you put scientists in charge of companies,’” instead of profit-driven managers who were less compassionate about patients.
The company began working on its PCSK9 inhibitor, Praluent, in the early 2000’s and when it came time for human clinical trials, Regeneron partnered with Sanofi and discovered the drug worked the way it was designed, as did a similar drug made by rival Amgen: Repatha.
It cost $2.6 billion to get Praulent developed and approved and Yancopoulos said after all that the company made only $195 million last year in global sales despite the demand, with insurers and companies competing over costs and benefits.
The sales number was low, he said, in part because insurers balked at the price of more than $14,000 a year for a patient to use the drug and because so many people were eligible, up to 10 million Americans could need Praulent or Repatha.
Yancopoulos believes so strongly in Praluent that he takes it himself, off-label, which he doesn’t recommend others do. He has heart disease in his family, so even though his cholesterol level is not high enough for him to qualify so he decided to pay Praluent’s full list price out of pocket to get his LDL as low as possible.
He said he was upset and surprised to learn that Regeneron’s own insurer denied Praluent to many of the company’s own employees who qualified for the drug so the company decided it would pay for any Regeneron drug for any company employee who had a doctor’s prescription and was unable to get the drug through Regeneron’s health insurance.
Since Yancopoulos has a doctor’s prescription for Praluent, he is a beneficiary of the policy and says he will be sure that Ames and Scheidel will get it too, unless their insurers show some heart and pay for the drug.