The stories are everywhere, once you start looking. The parents in West Virginia who skip meals and shut off their own electricity so they can afford insulin for their 10-year-old daughter, and some months, it still isn’t enough. The 7-year-old walking around with expired EpiPens because his mom can’t pay for more, and it’s better than nothing. The hundreds of people with hepatitis C, patiently waiting for their deteriorating livers to be deteriorated enough to qualify them for treatment: Medicaid has been forced to ration, because it can’t afford the $84,000 price tag on a drug that costs less than 1/8th of that to produce.
And then there’s the industry behind it all, which just got handed an $80 billion tax cut.
Or put it this way: the GOP tax cuts include a giveaway to Big Pharma so big that it could have paid for healthcare for 9 million children for five full years.
And that’s where this all gets so particularly sick for me. Because the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), as well as other programs that allow people to meet a bare minimum standard of living like Medicaid or the VA, have already been systematically gutted by Big Pharma: partly by their rampant tax-dodging, and partly by the unrelenting stream of arbitrary price hikes driving up those programs’ bills.
So what the GOP’s tax cuts do is rob us to feed Big Pharma not just once, but twice over: first by doing nothing to stop the offshore-profit-stashing that’s hemorrhaging tens of billions of public dollars, then by dramatically reducing the taxes they do owe, handing an $80 billion tax cut to the most profitable industry on Earth. And all while blocking any and all attempts to stop the industry from forcing our healthcare programs to pay ever-increasing prices for life-saving medicines they didn’t even invent.
And it’s always the same excuse for those rising prices: they’re just recouping costs. Research is expensive, clinical trials are expensive, producing the drugs is expensive. Big Pharma has invested years of time, energy, and cash into preserving this Billion Dollar Myth: the persistent belief that it costs something between $1.4 billion and $2.9 billion to develop every new drug that makes it to market. Every single time the Billion Dollar Myth comes up, it’s coming from research from just one group, the Big Pharma-funded Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, and it is bullshit. It’s such bullshit that even a chief executive at Glaxo-Smith Kline called it “one of the great myths of the industry.” Doctors Without Borders once said it much more plainly: “If you believe that, you probably also believe the earth is flat.”
So we know Big Pharma isn’t actually spending that much on research. We also know they’re not spending that much on taxes. And we also know that Big Pharma has gotten so price-hike-happy that, last year, the industry’s entire growth — the $8.7 billion in profit it made above its 2015 profits — came from price hikes alone. No research, no innovation, no costs to recoup: just hiking the prices of their existing products.
This industry is draining our collective pockets of billions of dollars, and they’re coming at us from all sides. There are the price hikes that cost Medicaid an extra $3 billion last year. There’s the offshore profit-stashing that lets the industry stow half a trillion dollars in tiny tax havens, robbing us of over $100 billion in public money. And now, an additional tax cut on that already-untaxed profit, a loosening of rules that were too loose to begin with, that will let Big Pharma walk away from $80 billion in taxes they should have already paid.
If there were any justice in this world, every single senator who voted for these cuts would have to look that little girl in West Virginia, or that 7-year-old’s mother, or those hep C patients, right in the face and explain why Big Pharma deserves tens of billions of dollars in tax cuts, while they have been left to rot.
All those people, and millions more, are about to be hit by a quadruple whammy. CHIP ran out of cash in September, and if no one’s done anything about it now, it’s hard to imagine anything being done about it any time soon. Then there’s the fact that the GOP tax cuts create a deficit so big that major cuts to our healthcare programs are all but inevitable. Meanwhile, nothing has been done to rein in the triple-digit price hikes that drive up those programs’ cost — why would it? From where the GOP is standing, that’s a win-win: let costs go up so high, and the deficit get so big, that even the people who will die without these programs can be tricked into voting to end them.
And the final blow is this unconscionable, unnecessary $80 billion tax cut, an amount of money that, if we had it, could have kept CHIP running for the next five years.
This is all exhausting. I can’t imagine how much more exhausting it would be if I had kids, or if I lost my job and couldn’t afford my asthma meds, or both. But that exhaustion is what these people are counting on. If we’re sick, and poor, and tired, then we can’t fight.
Nothing is set in stone, even these tax cuts: there’s still the reconciled version to vote on. And if that passes, we’ll just dust ourselves off and keep going. As the saying goes, the arc of history is long; what looks like backsliding is often just half of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance that has defined this country’s politics for so long.
We can’t get complacent, sure, but we also can’t get fatalistic. We need to ride out this giant step back so we can keep pushing for those two steps forward. We need to keep chipping away at Big Pharma until the only thing you get for bankrupting sick people is publicly shamed. And maybe a jail cell.