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Courthouse News reports that a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that he nation’s largest health insurer can sue two pharmaceutical giants over claims that they colluded to drive up the price of life-saving HIV drugs in violation of multiple state laws.

United HealthCare Services, which insures 70 million people in the U.S. through its affiliates and subsidiaries, sued Gilead Sciences and Teva Pharmaceuticals in federal court last year. The insurer, owned by parent company UnitedHealth Group, claims the drug makers entered into a series of unfair patent settlements that delayed generic versions of HIV drugs from hitting the market and shot up prices for consumers.

UnitedHealth’s complaint against the pharma firms is part of a flurry of federal antitrust suits filed last year against the makers of HIV antiretroviral drugs. Major retailers and insurers, including Humana and Blue Cross Blue Shield, have also sued the pharmaceutical giants.

The lawsuits claim Teva struck deals to settle patent suits with Gilead that delayed the introduction of a generic form of Viread until December 2017 and generic forms of Truvada and Atripla until September 2020. They say those deals enabled the drugmakers to charge hundreds of millions of dollars in higher prices for necessary medications that would have otherwise been cheaper in a truly competitive market.

A separate suit filed against Gilead by Humana last year claims that most of the company’s HIV medications cost $10 to produce, but for nearly 20 years Gilead charged health plans thousands of dollars for a 30-day supply. HIV drugs earned Gilead nearly $17 billion in sales in 2020.

Gilead makes three of the four top-selling HIV medications in addition to other drugs used in HIV combination antiretroviral therapy, or “cART.” More than 80% of U.S. patients starting HIV treatment take one or more of Gilead’s products each day, according to lawsuits filed by retailers.

Teva and Gilead had asked U.S. District Judge Edward Chen to dismiss claims that the companies violated antitrust and consumer protection laws in Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Utah.

The two drugmakers argued laws in those states only allow a consumer who buys drugs for their own personal use to file suit. Chen rejected that argument in a 16-page ruling, but he dismissed some claims for other reasons.

Judge Chen resolved a similar dispute back in March 2020 when he ruled that labor union insurers could sue drug makers for antitrust under the same state laws, even though those insurers were third-party payors.

Gilead and Teva argued that situation was different because the plaintiffs were union health and welfare funds, not for-profit corporations like UnitedHealth. Chen found the argument unavailing. “Even though a union health and welfare fund is a nonprofit entity by nature, it functions like an insurer,” Chen wrote.

The judge denied Teva and Gilead’s motions to dismiss claims under Indiana, Louisiana and Pennsylvania consumer laws. He dismissed a claim under Mississippi law without prejudice because UnitedHealth did not try to resolve the dispute through required settlement process first.

The judge refused to advance Utah state law claims on behalf of UnitedHealth’s insureds because only state residents can sue, but he allowed UnitedHealth to sue on behalf of its Utah-based subsidiary, finding the parent company would be “standing in the shoes” of its affiliate.

Chen also dismissed Massachusetts, Kansas and Vermont state law claims based on his prior analysis of those laws in a separate March 2020 ruling.

Additionally, Chen eliminated claims against Teva based on purchases made before Oct. 19, 2017, finding those claims are barred by a four-year statute of limitations.