Friday, November 27, 2009

What is the "Worst Biotech CEO" Worth?

Recently, we posted about misadventures of the leadership of biotechnology giant Genzyme.  Although the company has long priced its drug Cerezyme for the rare Gaucher's disease at a stratospheric level, it did not sufficiently reinvest money in its manufacturing facility for the drug.  Deferred maintenance at a production facility running at maximum capacity has apparently lead to two different kinds of contamination problems, forcing a shut-down of the plant, and now a shortage of the drug.  For this, Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer was just labeled the "Worst Biotech CEO of '09" by

It was not always thus.  A 2008 profile of Mr Termeer in Boston Magazine chronicled the rise of Genzyme from a "startup [which] operated 15 stories above the Combat Zone in an old garment building on a dodgy stretch of Kneeland Street."  Termeer pushed the company to develop a practical way to manufacture Cerezyme, and had the vision that the company could make money selling the drug to a relatively small number of patients.   Of course, his solution was to price the drug so high as to "drop jaws."  However, perhaps that was what was needed to get a innovative drug to a small number of patients.

Furthermore, Termeer posited that the revenues derived from drugs such as Cerezyme would lead to innovations that would help many more people.
The biotech tycoon's immodest goal is to change healthcare. That is what he's trying to do, after all. That's part of why he doesn't sweat the bad press, which he regards as the penance of the innovator. His therapies for ultrarare diseases, he says, point the way forward, toward a day when very targeted drugs cure ailments perfectly, precisely. Don't think of his niche therapies as being used by tiny, statistically inconsequential groups; think of them as being deployed in ways that get results every time. Now contrast this with the trial-and-error approach that dominates medicine as it's practiced today, in which doctors pick and choose from the menu of drugs available and calibrate dosages until finally, hopefully, they land on what works best for that particular person. What if instead every condition had a drug that was the smart bomb that Cerezyme is for Gaucher's?

While we wait for these marvelous new innovations, however, patients with Gaucher's disease must wait for their effective but amazingly expensive drug apparently because Mr Termeer presided over the failure to pay enough attention to mundane issues like manufacturing plant maintenance while he touted his vision of the future.

Whether that vision is realistic depends on one's view of Mr Termeer's predictive abilities. The Boston Magazine article suggested he is not a good fortune teller.  In 1994, Mr Termeer "suggested to the [New York] Times that the cost [of Cerezyme] would soon drop. 'Once we have the new plant running and approved, we will start to see some economies of scale,' Termeer told the paper in 1994. 'We can start to pass on some of these economies to the marketplace while at the same time improving the financial results of the company.' Fourteen years later, the price of Cerezyme has never come down.

In my humble opinion, the tale of Henri Termeer's and Genzyme's current woes tells a lot about the culture of leadership now prevalent in health care. On one hand, it seems that some of the business-people who took over leadership of health care organizations had administrative skills that turned innovative ideas into reality. This success may have derived from real vision about the possibilities of high-technology medicine and health care.

On the other hand, as their administrative abilities and vision lead to success, their judgment was liable to become over-confident, if not arrogant. This may have been fueled by the a business ethos that celebrates executives and managers, and their administrative skills and vision, beyond all else.

However, Mr Termeer's success was dependent on the painstaking and often thankless work of physicians and scientists, particularly those who first developed the drug that became Cerezyme, the initial funding of this work by the US National Institutes of Health, and the work by scientists and engineers to develop a practical way to manufacture this drug. Termeer also benefited from the Orphan Drug Act which "allowed companies that brought drugs to market seven years of monopoly sales." Without federal research money, favorable laws, and multiple dedicated scientists, physicians, and engineers, Mr Termeer's administrative skills and vision would have yielded nothing.

Nonetheless, it was Mr Termeer who was so richly rewarded. In 2006, Boston Magazine listed him as among the 50 wealthiest Bostonians, with an estimate worth of $342 million.  The 2008 profile noted "Over the past three years, Termeer has earned more than $50 million in total compensation, and thanks to the performance of Genzyme's stock, his stake in the company is now worth about $260 million."  He was interviewed at his waterfront home in tony Marblehead, Massachusetts.  He skippers his (only) "36-foot Hickley Pilot" which is "docked near the new home he's built outside Kennebunkport [Maine]..." the town in which former US President George HW Bush keeps a summer home. 

The US (and global) health care business culture disproportionately rewards managers and executives for "innovation," as opposed to the scientists and professionals who actually developed the innovation, or the other people whose money funded these efforts.  These leaders are rewarded them sufficiently to make them into a sort of pseudo-aristocracy.  I hypothesize that such rewards make them believe that they have actually done things worthy of them, breeding over-confidence, arrogance, and a sense of entitlement that puts them beyond the usual rules of society.  The result is leadership that may be ignorant of physicians' values, self-interested, and even corrupt, and health care that is too expensive, inaccessible, and that fails to deliver quality and value commensurate with its cost. 

To truly reform health care, we need to reform how health care oganizations' culture and leadership.


Bonita E Lay MA said...

What a surprise!!!! It's not only healthcare, but greed in business across the board. As the article posted, it was the backs of the scientists, doctors and their research assitants that made him a rich man. There are four silos of organizational effectiveness...growth, financial growth, customer service and managment. Fish stink from the head down. Here come the layoffs

Anonymous said...

'We can start to pass on some of these economies to the marketplace while at the same time improving the financial results of the company.'

I believe rDNA insulin is another drug where the "economies of the marketplace" failed to reduce costs. Compare the cost of today's "brewed" insulin-like concoctions with the old natural sourced animal insulins (when they were still available to U.S. patients). Amazingly, natural animal insulin is quite affordable in places where actual production still exist; Argentine animal insulin, for example, sells for approximately $14-$16/vial . . . a price one might have expected in the U.S. if the "old" price scale were adjusted for inflation.

Interestingly, as rDNA insulin-like hormones lose patent protction . . . (previously hidden) flaws are publicized as manufacturers seek to promote the next "latest and greatest." Are deaths and complications from diabetes declining with all this wonderful but costly new "treatment?"