I’ve done health-related work in many countries, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I’ll be haunted until the day I die by the face of a six-year-old girl in a small village in Albania who was dying because there was no money for her life-saving drugs. No one should have to die so a corporation can make a buck.
And yet it happens, every day, right here in the richest country on Earth. The US system for financing and distributing prescription medications is the worst in the developed world. It leads to sickness and financial hardship for millions. It leads to death.
Prescription medications cost nearly twice as much in the US as they do in other developed nations. The 20 top-selling drugs cost three times more here than in Great Britain (with that whole “socialized healthcare” thing we’re told is so ineffective). What’s different about us? The answer can be found in some simple math: there are two drug lobbyists in Washington for every one member of Congress.
This swarm of lobbyists has blocked the government from regulating drug costs at every turn, on both sides of the aisle. Even Medicare can’t negotiate prices, and Medicare pays nearly a third of all prescription drug costs in the country.
You can see the results anywhere you look: cancer drug treatment in this country, for example, often costs more than $100,000 every year — sometimes much more. That’s indefensible. A study of 10 cancer drugs in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the average revenue for a cancer drug was more than a billion dollars higher than the average cost of developing it — a return of more than two and a half to one. We’re supposed to be ok with that?
Even Americans with “good” employer-based insurance have paid a heavy price for drug company greed. Our nation learned that when Heather Holland, a second-grade teacher in Weatherford, Texas, died of flu complications because she couldn’t afford the $116 out-of-pocket cost for her antibiotic.
It’s not like the drug corporations are hurting. They’ve had record profits for years and years. Those profits come from patents the government grants them — not only for their own work, but for drugs created at government expense. In fact, a Project HOPE study found that government funding played a direct or indirect role in creating almost half of the drugs approved between 1988 and 2005.
It gets more brazen than that: pharma companies do sometimes patent their own inventions, but another study found that 78 percent of their approved patent applications were simply variations on other drugs that were already on the market. Rather than invent new and needed treatments, drug companies use gimmicks and tricks in the patent process to extend exclusivity for their big money makers so we can’t get cheaper, generic alternatives.
So even if you believe that a corporation has a right to make unlimited money off their invention no matter who gets hurt, these usually aren’t their inventions: they’re ours.
Our laws have been extraordinarily generous to Big Pharma. Executives are given no incentive to do the right thing — and they haven’t. They’ve jacked up prices relentlessly, without consideration for the human consequences.
Big Pharma made this crisis, but we can un-make it, not in the distant future, but right now. One option, the Prescription Drug Price Relief Act, is already on the table. A new measure from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna, it calls on drug companies to keep US prices in line with what they charge in five other developed countries. If they don’t, it allows other manufacturers to produce a generic drug at a fair price.
This isn’t an extreme idea. Every other developed country in the world manages drug costs, most often by using international prices as a benchmark. In my work, I have never seen adverse health consequences as a result of such efforts.
This isn’t a new idea, either. Congress passed a bill in 1980 that allowed the US government to grant manufacturing rights to other companies when a drug company abuses its patent.
It’s not even a partisan idea. That bill, the Bayh/Dole Act was sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat. The Sanders/Khanna bill simply expands and strengthens that common-sense protection.
Drug companies will say they need all that money to pay for research. We can test that claim. They got a big tax break from the Republicans in 2017; what did they do with it?
They gave more than $45 billion back to their shareholders, with no appreciable increase in R&D.
Democrats won back the House on a platform that emphasized cutting drug costs. President Trump keeps telling us he wants to lower drug prices, too. The Sanders/Khanna bill is a chance to make good on those promises. It is fair. It will save money, reduce suffering, and save lives. It should be passed, now. We’re running out of options, and many of us are running out of time.