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Horizon Therapeutics says it now has 20 drugs under development, in its 15 years of existence it has yet to license a product it invented. Yet the company has managed to assemble a war chest of lucrative drugs, in the process writing a playbook for how to build a modern pharmaceutical colossus.

As the White House and both parties in Congress grapple with reining in prescription drug prices, a report in KFF News says that Horizon’s approach reveals just how difficult this may be.

Horizon’s strategy has paid off handsomely. Krystexxa was just one of the many shiny objects that attracted Amgen, a pharmaceutical giant. Amgen announced in December that it intends to buy Horizon for $27.8 billion, in the biggest pharmaceutical industry deal announced in 2022. Krystexxa brought in $716 million in 2022 and was expected to earn $1 billion annually in coming years.

According to the KFF report, Horizon’s CEO, Tim Walbert, who will reportedly get around $135 million when the deal closes, has mastered a particular kind of industry expertise: taking drugs invented and tested by other people, wrapping them expertly in hard-nosed marketing and warm-hued patient relations, raising their prices, and enjoying astounding revenues.

He’s done this with unusual finesse – courting patients with concierge-like attention and engaging specialist clinicians with lunches, conferences, and research projects, all while touting his own experience as a patient with a rare inflammatory disease. Walbert’s company has been particularly adept at ensuring that insurers, rather than patients, bear the costly burdens of his drugs.

KFF News reported that a federal prosecutor in 2015 began examining allegations that Horizon’s patient assistance program had worked with specialty pharmacies to evade insurers’ efforts to shun Horizon’s expensive drugs. A separate probe opened in 2019 over alleged kickbacks to pharmacy benefit managers, companies that negotiate to get Horizon’s drugs covered by insurers. Those investigations appear to be no longer active, Horizon spokesperson Catherine Riedel said.

The company this year disclosed a third probe, concerning methods the company allegedly used to get prior authorization of its drugs. Justice officials did not respond to requests for comment on the investigations.

To help sell its drugs, Horizon blankets specialist physicians with marketing and peer-to-peer appeals. Its payments to physicians for things like consulting, speeches, and meals totaled $8.7 million in 2021, compared with the $10 million it paid them for research, federal records show.

By contrast, Seagen, a biotech company of roughly the same size, paid doctors a total of $116 million, with nearly $112 million of that pegged for research. Riedel said Horizon’s marketing and educational approaches were “necessarily unique” because of the challenges of treating rare and neglected diseases.

While at Abbott, Walbert pioneered direct-to-consumer advertising for specialty drugs like Humira, a trend that aggravated insurers, who anticipated, correctly, that they would soon be shelling out billions for expensive drugs.

The company defends its marketing practices. “We learn what matters most to patient communities and act. This approach has been validated by independent third-party research,” said Riedel.

The Federal Trade Commission said in January it was seeking more information on the Amgen-Horizon merger. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), citing high prices for Horizon and Amgen drugs, urged the agency to nix the deal.