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Merck Rattled by AIDS Banners in Hometown

AIDS Group Employs Novel Use of Train Station Banner Advertisements in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-Merck's Hometown-Urging, "Merck: Do the Right Thing."

Goal: Educate Commuting Employees and the General Public about the High Price Merck Charges for its AIDS Drug, Isentress, the Most Expensive First-Line Treatment

LOS ANGELES (February 16, 2010) - As part of its ongoing campaign to lower AIDS drug prices and increase access, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) today unveiled its latest element in a multifaceted advocacy campaign challenging Merck and Co. Pharmaceuticals over the steep price it charges for its key HIV/AIDS drug, Isentress (raltegravir), the most expensive first-line AIDS therapy in the US today. In a novel approach aimed at educating commuting Merck employees and the general public about the high price the company charges for the drug, AHF placed train station banner advertisements hanging from light poles on the platform of the train station in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-Merck's hometown. The colorful vinyl banner ads read, "Merck: Do the Right Thing." The banners, which began hanging at the station this week, are approximately two feet by three feet in size, also direct viewers to AHF's website, where visitors can find information about Merck's AIDS drug pricing and policies regarding Isentress.

"We want to bring the message about Merck's unwarranted high price for Isentress directly to company employees and we hit upon the novel idea of buying banner ad space in the train station in Whitehouse Station, Merck's hometown," said Michael Weinstein, AIDS Healthcare Foundation President. "Merck employees who commute by train and other community members will pass under our 'Merck: Do the Right Thing' banners every day over the next few weeks. Despite Merck's efforts to spin it otherwise, Isentress-a single drug that must be taken with at least two other drugs-is the highest priced drug of any first line AIDS therapy in the US today. And in Africa-where Merck charges $1,100 per patient per year for the drug-it is priced 20 times more than other companies' AIDS drugs. Merck employees and the public should know about the company's pricing and policies on Isentress."

Background on AHF Advocacy on Merck's Drug Pricing

The 'Do the Right Thing' train station banner ads in Whitehouse Station are part of an ongoing advocacy campaign over Merck's pricing for Isentress. This action comes on the heels of a protest targeting Merck held in early January in San Francisco in conjunction with the J.P. Morgan Investor Healthcare Conference, where Merck officials were speaking. Perhaps expecting a protest or action, Merck placed a somewhat defensive full page, four color print ad in that day's issue of the San Francisco Chronicle (Tuesday January 12, 2010, page A5). The ad touted Merck's, ".commitment to HIV and AIDS," and claimed, "We price all our HIV medicines fairly and responsibly."

The Whitehouse Station banner ad campaign also follows an inquiry into Merck's pricing strategy for Isentress by the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), the nation's largest public pension fund. In December, advocates from AHF testified before members of the CalPERS Investment Committee about the impact of the high price of the drug on people with AIDS in California and across the country. In response to AHF's testimony, the committee agreed to make an inquiry.

AHF also wrote letters to all state ADAP and Medicaid Directors requesting that Isentress be placed on "prior authorization" in order to control costs while still ensuring that those patients who need Isentress have access to it. Placing "prior authorization" procedures on Isentress ensures that the drug remains available to those for whom it is medically necessary. The procedure simply requires that a physician fill out a request form if he/she deems it necessary to prescribe the drug. NOTE: The price for many of the federally funded, state-run and cash-strapped AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) is $8,088 per patient per year-three times more expensive than commonly prescribed ARVs for first-line treatment).

In addition, AHF also sent postcard mailers last summer to homes in select zip codes in and around Merck's headquarters in an effort to inform Merck employees about the company's pricing and policies regarding Isentress.

Merck's Isentress: Salvage Therapy versus First Line Use

Initially approved in October 2007 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a salvage therapy, the FDA recently expanded its approval of Merck's Isentress for use as a first line course of treatment in HIV/AIDS, a move which both greatly expands the US market for the drug and makes Merck's antiretroviral (ARV) Isentress the most expensive first line treatment on the market. When it first came to market, Merck set the Average Wholesale Price (AWP) of Isentress at $12,150 per patient yearly. Merck has since raised the AWP of Isentress to $12,868-a 5% price hike-since its introduction to market two years ago.

At minimum, Isentress must be taken with at least two other HIV/AIDS drugs as part of an effective antiretroviral treatment regimen, pushing the overall price of one Isentress patient's yearly AIDS drugs to between $20,000 and $30,000. Public programs (Federal and State) are the largest purchaser of ARV medications in the country, with Medicare and Medicaid the single largest payer for HIV/AIDS care in the U.S.

The Department of Health and Human Services treatment guidelines include several preferred treatment options for first-line patients. These options provide the same clinical benefit as Isentress but cost less. For example, Isentress-which must be taken with two additional AIDS drugs-costs nearly as much as an entire three-drug regimen of Viread, Emtriva and Sustiva.


AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest global AIDS organization, currently provides medical care and services to more than 127,000 individuals in 23 countries worldwide in the US, Africa, Latin America/Caribbean the Asia/Pacific region and Eastern Europe.

Media Contact: Ged Kenslea

Telephone: (323) 308-1833 Mobile: (323) 791-5526



Media Contact: Lori Yeghiayan

Telephone: (323) 308-1834 Mobile: (323) 377-4312


Reproduced with permission - "AIDS HEATHCARE FOUNDATION"


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